Plastic bags - Recycling worker

Walking out of the market, it suddenly hit me. Something different. Oh, that’s right. No one asked me if I would like to buy a bag for ten cents, and my two hands carried one plastic food-stuffed bag each. I wondered how long I had been unaware of the change.

My life gets messy. I run around some days not knowing whether I’m coming or going and plan my daily meals in my car on the fly, both products of a frenetic, over-scheduled life of parent and professional.

Though I shop weekly, sometimes two or three times a week, for a family of four, not including a couple of cats and a dog, I cannot recall a single trip to the grocery store that I have remembered to bring recyclable bags.

Occasionally, I have gone so far as to remove one or two of the six cloth bags of varying supermarket origins hanging in my kitchen as plastic bag storage spaces and put them in the trunk of my car with good intentions. However, in the mad dashes to the market in between one daughter’s soccer practice and the other’s work and school practice schedule, I literally run to pick up a few items from the store so my athlete eaters do not starve.

And it never fails. I get to the checkout stand and sheepishly look away from the cashier when asked if I wish to purchase paper bags for my items, having forgotten the bags at home or in the trunk of the car—again.

Since the law passed in 2013, I have been painfully aware of the ban on plastic bags in Huntington Beach, my home town for the last 38 years. Each time I leave a clothing, grocery or department store, I leave with my arms full of cumbersome items falling from my arms or belching forth from my overstuffed purse.

Most often, however, I pay the ten cents for the paper bag when I cannot tuck one more item under my arm or piled against my chest for the sprint to the car before everything falls. I’ve often been annoyed by it, longing for the days before the ban’s arrival, but mostly for my own lack of preparation that causes my inconvenience.

The law itself aims true: to reduce plastics that are known to be indefinitely indissoluble and a blight on our beautiful beach city, well known as Surf City.

Huntington Beach is a small coastal city south of Los Angeles and north of San Diego, home to the U.S. Open and surf culture. The surf museum thrives in downtown, commemorating the Duke’s surf competition days and the songs of Jan and Dean, whose surf tunes were inspired by Huntington Beach, so the lore goes.

So not surprisingly, Huntington Beach, spurred on by environmental groups, banned single-use plastic bags in November of 2013.

According to ballotpedia, a non-profit information gathering organization calling itself “an interactive almanac for U.S. politics,” Huntington Beach adopted the controversial plastic bag ban in 2012 spearheaded by the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit environmental group of self-appointed wave protectors, according to its website.

Environmental groups like Surfrider have long complained that plastic bags are not only polluting city beaches but destroying marine life and filling landfills with toxic indissoluble waste.

Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed proposed legislation SB270 that places a statewide ban on “single-use carryout” plastic grocery bags and requires store owners to charge at least ten cents for every paper bag used.

However, the bill generated strong opposition by industry and interest groups. In fact, the American Progressive Plastic Bag Alliance gathered more than the 800,000 signatures required to send the ban to the voters come November 8, 2016, by statewide referendum. California vs. Big Plastic leads the campaign in support of the statute.

While the supporters and detractors of the ban fall into the typical dichotomy of industry vs. environment, with few exceptions, the core of the issue appears to be lost in money and politics.

The plastic industry claims the ban causes significant lost profits, which means lost jobs. And initially, the California Grocers Association opposed the ban on similar grounds until the mandatory ten cents paper bag fee was added, a windfall for grocers as the price of the paper bag is twice the price of production costs, according to data from ballotpedia.

Each side blames the other for being in the pocket of some money giant. Neither side believes the other bears enough responsibility.

As for Huntington Beach, Council Member Mike Posey led the campaign to repeal the plastic bag ban ordinance earlier this year claiming the ban is an infringement on freedom of choice of city dwellers, who he credits with responsible behaviour toward the environment.

In response to the repeal, the Surfrider’s Association filed suit against the city on June 3, 2015, contending the ban was lifted without the requisite EPA study to show the environmental impact since the ban was imposed.

While it may be true that most Californians are environmentally conscious, recycling and picking up after themselves, many are not. And it may not be from disregard of the environment so much as the unthinking habits of a busy life—like mine.

However, I give myself no excuse. Being mindful of the responsibilities to myself, others and the world is not a daily practice of words but of actions. Yes, it starts with the right intentions and the focus on changing thought—small actions like remembering grocery bags before sprinting out of the car, only a short breath-ful pause. More importantly, however, it takes proactively keeping compassionate thoughts in the forefront. And then following through with behaviours that effectuate those thoughts.

For example, building a remembering habit. A habit of pausing before speeding out of my car—to breathe and reflect—will remind me to slow down, be better prepared and organize my life, all of which makes me and those around me less harassed—in addition to remembering to protect the environment.

The ban on plastic bags promotes that mindfulness. It forces people to build better habits. Whether that’s the job of government regulation and enforcement or not is best left to voters come election time, hopefully with the understanding that building a mass consciousness in a large population, even in the environment-conscious California (or anywhere) is no easy task. And money does talk.

However, the banner of responsibility on each side differs little: conscious action.

Plastic companies project lost profits in the short run, but any business survives by transforming itself for the changes in a non-static market. Smart companies make money no matter the social climate, by planning for the long run with new technologies and markets.

In the end, it matters little the motivations—money or environment—behind the law so long as the law does what it’s purported to do and people support it. The larger matter lies in individual responsibility to others and not just with plastic.

When do we cross the line between a seemingly harmless lack of consciousness of those around us—say, like my forgetting recycling bags—and conscious disregard of others? The “rugged individualism” (pride of this country’s founding generation and their progeny) pitted against the social contract of benevolence towards others with whom we live in society—an agreement to let live—always calls up that question. And not only for people.

Philosopher Peter Singer, in an interview with the New York Times  earlier this year defined human disregard of animals’ rights as “speciesism,” when humans give “less weight to the interests of non-human animals than they give to the similar interests of human beings.”

Interests like survival in clean oceans, I imagine.

Whether we consider ourselves the superior shepherds of other species or we consider ourselves on par with other species, positing survival as the burden of each species, there’s still a path that’s neither too philosophical nor too patriotic.

When we teach ourselves good habits, the correlative benefits to all society reverberate small and large. And we’re such trainable creatures, we humans, if we have the will, both personal and political.

As to politics, we can count on conflicting reports by the data gatherers and scientists of the tangible benefits of the bag ban. Each side of the battle will no doubt dispute the other’s evidence, as is often the case. But the heart of the matter remains in the heart of a species.

Do we suffer the small inconvenience to re-train ourselves for even the mere possibility that it matters to other lives? The answer is clearly yes.

The plastic industry and the grocers associations protect the bottom-line dollar, but that sum is a finite number. The behaviour we instill in ourselves, choosing compassion, is infinite.

Read more on this topic in USING REUSABLE BAGS: Humour at the checkout line»

image: Recycling worker standing on the landfill via Shutterstock