Monday, July 9, 2007

Capital Punisment: No More Plastic Bags, Sam?

This letter to the editor, which appeared on July 8, is from Ward 7 Alderman Sam Shropshire himself, concerning his proposed legislation to ban plastic bags from the city of Annapolis. Here we go:

Your editorial headlined "Paper-or-plastic issue not as simple as alderman thinks" cast doubt on my legislation to rid Annapolis neighborhoods and waterways, and the Chesapeake Bay, of plastic retail checkout bags.

If true, The Capital can claim a rare success in actually encouraging open thought. To read more about how paper bags are at least the same or WORSE than plastic bags, click here, or here, or here, or here.

You said my "view that shoppers can do without plastic bags makes us wonder how much grocery shopping he has done recently. Has he tried transporting ice cream in a paper bag?"

To prevent this problem, try making your own ice cream.

That makes me wonder just how often Capital writers shop! I shop almost daily. I use reusable shopping bags. And a lot of U.S. supermarkets offer insulated, leak-proof recycled paper bags for transporting ice cream.

OK! Here is our first breach of logic. You claim to use a reusable bag, which is environmentally friendly. But, your legislation does not promote this, it merely bans plastic bags. This will only encourage paper bags. Maybe some people fear paper cuts and will switch to reusable, but you are not really promoting your own solution. Also, I have NEVER seen this insulated, reusable ice cream bag you speak of, and I was not born yesterday.

Plastic checkout bags litter Annapolis streets and waterways. They often fill with silt, acting like sandbags, clogging storm drains and creeks.

Fair enough, but is this really a big problem? Maybe so. Anyway, before we go banning things or telling people how to live their lives, let's try and enforce the littering laws that already exist. Whadda ya think?

Thousands eventually make their way into the bay and out to sea, and some all the way across the Atlantic. En route they often look like jellyfish, and when they are ingested, birds, whales, seals, and turtles die.

I actually found some evidence that this is true, even all the way across the Atlantic. Careful though, this is a classic scare technique designed to make you ignore the facts and support a particular position based on your emotions alone, regardless of fact, logic, or reason. Besides, who really needs turtles, except Terrapins, because they are awesome.

And no matter how much money we spend trying to clean them up, we don't get them all. They just don't go away.

Partly true. We can't get them all, but they do go away eventually.

By most counts, only 1 percent of the 20 billion plastic checkout bags distributed annually in America are being recycled. That leaves 99 percent of these billions to contaminate our waterways or be trucked to dumps, where they will slowly exude toxins over several hundred years.

I don't like the smell of these numbers. I would bet you could argue these facts, if not disprove them. Nonetheless, how about an effort to increase recycling? Rather than banning? Whadda ya think?

My legislation would prohibit the distribution of plastic checkout bags by Annapolis retailers. While this may seem to some like firing a BB at the polluting giant of over consumption, for nervous international polyethylene profiteers it will certainly be a shot heard round the world.
SAM SHROPSHIRE, Alderman Ward 7, Annapolis

I'm surprised he waited this long. Here is my theory on how this legislation came to be: Alderman Sam is sitting at home one day and thinks to himself, "How can I use the phrase 'shot heard round the world' in a public forum?". He then concocts this elaborate scheme, which draws criticism, which requires a letter refuting the criticism, and here we are. I mean, this last paragraph is a fantastically absurd bit of rhetoric. You are not in a movie, Sam.

Also, I did some research. By 2010 the global demand for polyethylene will be 87 million tons. At the current price of about $.55 per pound, this means that by 2010 the international polyethylene market will gross $95,700,000,000--that's 95.7 billion dollars. I doubt that the international polyethylene profiteers are worried about the city of Annapolis banning plastic bags.

Have you ever heard the saying necessity breeds invention? Well, it does. I believe that the microchip was developed because NASA needed to make things smaller to fit on a rocket. This is what economists call a positive externality (and human beings call a good side-effect). If the world, somehow, banned plastic bags, all research concerning plastic bags, their production, distribution, etc. will stop. Any positive externalities that would have occurred along the way will no longer occur.

On the other hand, let's say you let businesses offer whatever the hell types of bags they want, but offer an incentive for recycling plastic bags. So businesses, in their desire to make money, figure out a good way to recycle plastic bags. Maybe their method of recycling also applies to paper bags, and recycling of paper bags increases too! This is called capitalism, and is why America is the richest country, because we are the most capitalist country.

(I would bet that if you calculated the correlation between capitalism and per capita gdp, you would find that the most capitalist countries are the richest. I now offer my apologies, because I do not have the research tools nor the expertise to produce a chart for you in a timely fashion.)

But the thing is, Sam, you don't have to offer businesses an incentive--THEY WILL DO IT THEMSELVES. Businesses have to pay, let's say $.01 each, for their plastic bags. If they figure out a way to recycle, they will have to buy fewer bags and will MAKE MORE MONEY. SO THE GOVERNMENT DOES NOT HAVE TO DO ANYTHING AND THE PROCESS WILL WORK.

Note to readers: the following is a bit geeky, but relevant. Normally the free market process works almost perfectly (at least in the long-run). But, in the case of environmental economics, pollution is an EXTERNALITY of production and not a COST of production. Businesses, therefore, do not consider pollution in their strategic decisions or consider it at a discounted rate. The government has a role here, as protection of the environment is a public good.