Choice, not coercion

Council goes too far in banning plastic bags

There is no question that single-use plastic bags are a problem. They litter the landscape and are collecting in the ocean, where sunlight breaks them into small pieces that fish mistake for food and eat, to their detriment. The bags are also a petroleum product, which means their manufacture contributes to global warming and adds to our nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

It’s entirely appropriate for a local jurisdiction such as the city of Chico to try to do its part, as a responsible member of society, to solve the problem. It is not, as some have charged, a waste of time and resources for the City Council to write an ordinance regulating the use of plastic bags, any more than it’s a waste of time for each of us as individuals to recycle and try to lessen our energy use.

That said, we think the council went too far when it voted last week to require all large local retailers, such as supermarkets, to stop using plastic carry-out bags altogether. In doing so, the five council members who voted for the ordinance turned away from an option that would have served the same purpose while giving consumers more choices. Instead they adopted the most coercive option available to them.

They could have required retailers to charge a dime for all carry-out bags, whether paper or plastic. As several people said during discussion of the issue, other states’ experiences show that a small fee provides sufficient incentive to nudge most customers into bringing their reusable bags to the store.

Let’s face it: Sometimes people will forget their reusable bags. And some of those people will be walk-in customers, or on bicycles. Plastic bags are much easier for them to carry than paper bags.

When this ordinance goes into effect, however, such an option will not be available. That’s unfortunate. Freedom of choice is always preferable to coercion. Besides, had customers opted en masse to purchase plastic bags—highly unlikely—the council could have come back and banned them outright.