Plastic Bag Federalism

You know those reusable grocery bags everyone is selling these days? I never use them. And it’s not because I’m against them – I realize that, even after you re-use them once or twice as lunch bags, they ultimately end up in a landfill, not-rotting for centuries. No, the reason that I don’t use them is simple – I’m forgetful, and I always leave the bags at home. Every single time.

I’m glad I live in Texas (as most Texans are), because I would be completely out of luck if I lived in the California city of Manhattan beach, which just got a go-ahead to implement its ban from the state’s supreme court.

The city enacted the ban on its 200 or so retail stores in 2008. A group of retailers and plastic bag makers sued to stop its implementation, though, because they said paper and reusable bags would cause even more harm to the environment. The court basically called that argument stupid and moved on, concluding "substantial evidence and common sense support the city's determination that its ordinance would have no significant environmental effect."

There’s a reason why most bag bans in this country have happened on the West Coast: Most Californians are fine with having to bring their cloth bags to the store, because they value the law’s environmental benefits over the convenience of having plastic bags.

Here in Texas, that law obviously would not fly. We don’t like to be told what to do here, and even those who don’t ever use plastic bags might get a little uncomfortable with the idea of the government banning something that seems far from the matters with which it should concern itself.

But you know what? That’s okay, because our ingenious system of government allows both California and Texas environmental regulations to exist side-by-side. Different regions, states and cities have different cultures, and so we can all have different laws to suit these different cultures. And when those cultures change, people can advocate for laws to change, too. I’m not saying our government is perfect – it is, after all, administered by imperfect people – but for a country made up of so many different types of people spread across a vast swath of land, it's designed to make allowance for our local oddities.

And that’s why I’m glad that Manhattan Beach gets to keep its plastic bag ban. It's citizens believed their government should be that involved in their lives, so that’s what they should get. Here in Texas, though, I like to know that I’ll have a backup when I get to the checkout lane and realize my bags are still in the bottom of my pantry.

Posted by Laura Williams on Jul 21, 2011