Almanac

Viewpoint - January 23, 2013

Guest opinion: Plastic bag ordinance needs some revisions

by Hank Lawrence

We should applaud the contributions by environmental groups that have led to cleaner air and water and the conservation of natural resources. Without their advocacy the environment would not be as good.

Our society has evolved to be considerate and caring of the environment due in part to outreach efforts by environmental groups. Unfortunately, there are a few unenlightened people who have a reckless disregard for the environment and discard single-use plastic bags into our creeks and tributaries. The Menlo Park City Council desires to solve this problem — as it should.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors has introduced a plastic bag ban that is well-intentioned but overreaching. The proposed ban punishes all Menlo Park residents for the transgressions of a few.

The council should govern in the best interests of all its residents without undue special interest group influence. When an ordinance is introduced the council should carefully scrutinize it. If it does not serve the best interests of all Menlo Park residents then it should be modified or rejected.

The proposed single-use plastic bag ban is flawed for the following reasons:

• As council member Catherine Carlton pointed out, it does not consider the use of compostable bags;

• It interferes with private business, telling them what they should charge for their commodities. Government has no right to that level of intrusion in the private sector. It should be the sole discretion of business to decide whether and how much to charge for paper bags.

• Menlo Park residents use single-use plastic bags to discard soiled diapers, dog waste, and as liners for waste baskets. There is no reason why single-use compostable plastic bags couldn't be substituted.

A sound ordinance would require that all grocers only offer biodegradable bags with no mention of what they should charge. Some people make the argument that the city will be sued by the plastic bag industry, but it can only prevail if it can show discrimination. If the ordinance is crafted so that it does not discriminate between paper or plastic then it would deter litigation. The proposed ordinance should also have penalties for littering such as 100 hours of community service picking litter from San Francisquito Creek for the first offense and more time for subsequent offenses.

The county, through the use of an environmental impact report, is holding sway over the city governments. The city governments are separate but equal to the county government. However, the county dangling the financial carrot in front of the city governments has the effect of the cities ceding their authority to the county. If we were to take that influence to the extreme, one could argue that Menlo Park should disincorporate and put the Board of Supervisors in charge of the city. That is something we don't want to do.

Hank Lawrence lives on Sharon Oaks Drive in Menlo Park

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