Daniel Burnstein: Seattle Bag Law Not a Threat to Freedom

[Daniel Burnstein, associate professor of history at Seattle University, is the author of "Next to Godliness: Confronting Dirt and Despair in Progressive Era New York City" (University of Illinois Press 2006).]

Many people contend Seattle's new law requiring a 20-cent per bag fee is frivolous and exemplifies government's tendency to curtail individual freedom. But far from being frivolous, this innovative law will decrease the annual production of bags by 184 million - and the resulting 4,000-ton reduction in greenhouse gases will be multiplied many times over if Seattle's model is replicated widely.

Rather than curtailing freedom, this kind of environmental regulation is based on longstanding precedent allowing government to prevent nuisances in order to protect public health and safety. The bag law does not conflict with any individual freedom delineated in the U.S. Constitution.

A hundred years ago, many people complained about government campaigns to curb the spread of tuberculosis by banning spitting in streetcars. Global warming is a more abstract but not a less dangerous threat than tuberculosis. We are a freer people because of the lowered incidence of tuberculosis, and if we lessen the severity of global warming, future generations will be freer as a result. And by acting now, we can preclude the need for far more drastic actions down the line.

We no longer live in a frontier society containing seemingly limitless resources to exploit for individual gain. Rather, ours is an urbanized and overpopulated world in which one person's behavior often affects others, necessitating community-oriented approaches to complex problems if we want to maintain our freedom and our ability to attain a decent quality of life.

Voluntary action is great, but it has proved insufficient to address the scale of the global warming problem. We severely hamper our ability to deal with environmental and social problems if we take government action off the table. We value our freedom, but all too often we ignore the Founders' admonition that with freedom comes obligations. If we abuse our freedom by failing to act as responsible stewards of our nation's resources, by failing to direct our government to provide sensible ground rules for living together, we will ruin things for future generations.

Right-wing presidents' actions to curb "big government" regulations have resulted in deadly mining disasters to Hurricane Katrina because the Bush administration associated its agenda with federal interference. In such instances, government action would have been warranted.

It's ironic that while right-wing ideology concerning government's threat to freedom has resulted in deadly inaction, at the same time right-wing officials have directed government to take forceful actions that have threatened freedom - for example, by abrogating habeas corpus, inflicting torture, spying on citizens without warrant, intimidating union-organizing efforts and declaring that the president possesses the arbitrary power to change legislation by issuing signing statements.

Given this grim context, people trivialize the struggle between freedom and oppression when they contend that modest regulations, such as the bag law, threaten freedom. We view the world through ideological rather than pragmatic lenses when we see every regulatory action as a threat to freedom. What would the families of miners who died due to lax regulation say to those who mockingly equate government regulations with a "nanny state"?

In some instances government oppresses, but in other instances government provides the foundation for enhancing individual freedom and fulfillment, and provides security against very real dangers. It would be more useful to judge each policy on its own merits, asking whether a government proposal actually poses a threat to liberty or is instead more simply an inconvenience.

Our bag law, though inconvenient, will promote the common good, and for this we can justly be proud.

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William J. Stepp - 9/4/2008

James Loewen conveniently overlooks the fact that the problem of trash being tossed into streets, sidewalks and other "public" spaces stems from the fact that these spaces are controlled by the State, a certified criminal organization and gang of mass murderers. This problem can be solved by private ownership of these resources.
Is private propety as ugly and trash-littered as "public property"?
The thugs, I mean "legislators," who passed the bottle bills can go get real jobs, and stop their tax-stealing and organized puffery.

Andrew Todd understands economics, which puts him far ahead of James Loewen.

Andrew D. Todd - 9/3/2008

Amusing thought: I was weeding out the old book catalogs and similar junk mail which were threatening to drive me out of house and home, when I ran across this:


Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939

"Natalia Molina illustrates the many ways local health officials used complexly constructed concerns about public health to demean, diminish, discipline, and ultimately define racial groups. She shows how the racialization of Mexican Americans was not simply a matter of legal exclusion or labor exploitation, but rather that scientific discourses and public health practices played a key role in assigning negative racial characteristics to the group."
I have not read this book, and cannot speak to its qualities, but it does look rather interesting, yes? This sort of thing is what social historians are supposed to do in the aftermath of Eugene Genovese.

Andrew D. Todd - 9/1/2008

The Oregon Bottle Bill went through in 1971. When I lived there, in the late 1980's, bums were still tipping over trash cans. The bill prescribed a fixed rate, of two cents for a standard refillable container or five cents for other types, a rate which has of course been largely repudiated by inflation. The useful virtue of inflation is that it functions as a kind of statute of limitations on financial obligations, which have to be periodically renegotiated, or else they practically cease to exist. However, long after the bottle bill had ceased to motivate consumers, it was still motivating bums. It is difficult to understand the mindset of someone who will spend a couple of hours collecting, say, a hundred bottles, to get the price of a bottle of "Mad Dog" (Mogen-David MD 20-20).


What did happen was that people began guarding trash cans, dumpsters, etc., with barbed wire, and even the odd junkyard dog. I'm going to tell you a little story which admittedly happened in a non-bottle-bill state, but which indicates the ultimate folly of trash-guarding. When I lived in Philadelphia in the early 1990's, my neighbor kept a junkyard dog to go with his freelance junkyard. The first one was killed by a University of Pennsylvania police officer in ambiguous circumstances (it may or may not have been attacking a little old lady). Correction, the dog, a Doberman, was shot by the police officer, retreated into the debris of the junkyard while collapsing, and was eventually dragged out by a city dogcatcher armed with a long pole with a noose at the end. The dogcatcher finished the beast off by garroting it with the noose. As there had been a discharge of firearms by a peace officer, we had the City of Philadelphia police in, interviewing witnesses and all. At any rate, the neighbor soon got a new junkyard dog. Process servers left their bills on my doorstep because they didn't dare to approach the neighbor's.

Parenthetically, in the years after the bottle bills went through, the soda bottlers shifted to selling soda in big plastic one-liter or two-liter bottles, so that anyone who wanted to save a bit of money had obvious incentives to buy the bigger bottle, and the occasions of throwing it away were correspondingly less frequent. Most states do not have bottle bills, and there is not exactly an epidemic of throwing bottles out of car windows.

You are correct that grocery stores accept bottles back in those states which have bottle bills. They pay you for the bottle, crush it-- and then they throw the crushed bottles in the trash, and pay someone to haul them away. It is simply a tax on doing business. The dirty little secret about post-consumer plastics recycling is that it usually doesn't work. A post consumer plastic container such as a soda bottle will commonly be made of two different kinds of plastics, will very often contain paper, ink, food residues, etc. It is not suitable for making new bottles of the same type, because all these different materials are comminated. A basic principle of recycling is that materials are almost always recycled downwards. The exception is factory scrap, typically sheets of plastic from which objects have been cut out. All the cut-out sheets in the debris bin of one cutting machine are of the same type of plastic, and they can often conveniently be used to make new plastic sheets of the same type, which come back to the cutting machine. The claimed recycling figures on various plastic objects are generally based on factory scrap, not on post-consumer plastic. The uses of post-consumer plastic are fairly limited, things like plastic siding for houses. Beyond that limited market, the highest and best use of post-consumer plastic is for fuel.

Recycling of tin cans is a bit more attractive, because the steelmaking process involves melting them at more than two thousand degrees, and at that temperature, all carbon-based chemicals simply burn off. Steel scrap can be separated from raw garbage by giant magnets, so there is no justification for deposit fees on tin cans. Even so, recycled steel contains unpredictable combinations of alloying metals, and therefore is used for structural steel, not for the higher grades of sheet steel used in automaking.

James W Loewen - 9/1/2008

I did not read all of this enormous "reply," but Todd knows little about the impact of bottle bills. They did modify consumer behavior, causing consumers to bring back bottles and stuff them into the machines installed in the front of supermarkets, which crushed them, paid the refund, and provided a compact "product" for recycling. While street people indeed did upend trash containers, like other rational economic players they only did so when it paid. After getting your trash upended twice, most consumers stopped putting any recyclable items in them, and after upending the cans fruitlessly a couple of times, street people went elsewhere. The only places where this still happens are urban locales with high volumes of sidewalk traffic, and even there, the problem has abated.
Before bottle bills, by far the larger trash problem came from (and still comes from) people who threw bottles (and other trash) out of their car windows, dropped trash while walking, etc. Bottle bills caused some relief. As people learned not to throw bottles from their cars, some generalized and stopped throwing other trash out of their car. Ditto while walking. The difference in some states, pre- and post-bottle bill, was noticeable.
If the rest of the post is "up to" the standard of scholarship set in the first third, I did right to stop reading.

Andrew D. Todd - 8/31/2008

Daniel Burnstein seems to have a rather naive understanding of spitting. Spitting, even spitting on someone, has very little to do with the spread of epidemic disease. Of course, spitting on someone has always been an assault at law, and the point of dispute in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century would have been the act of spitting on the floor. Such spitting does not form an aerosol with any efficiency. Normal breathing, however, does form an aerosol, which lends itself to being easily inhaled. The main factor driving tuberculosis in the age of Jacob Riis was the number of people living five and ten to a room. Nowadays, Tuberculosis is mostly found when men are housed in barracks conditions, typically in prisons. Airliners, likewise, are a problem, because of the degree of overcrowding, and the tendency of the airplane's pressurization system to dehydrate and recirculate air. Spitting is primarily about cultural defiance, a visual gesture of contempt, worth a fight with broken bottles in all the more authentic workingman's taverns. The whole point of spitting in a streetcar was to force a fine gentleman to back down from a fight, and eventually to make the streetcar a "gentleman-free zone." One can find other comparable forms of regulation from that date, designed to restrict the outspokenness of the underclass. One sometimes encounters ordinances such as the French one that required prostitutes to ply their trade in side streets, and not to solicit men in the presence of the mens' wives and children. Obviously, the likelihood of making a sale under those circumstances must have been minimal, but Judy O'Grady got a certain pardonable pleasure out of embarrassing the Colonel's Lady. By contrast, no one gets particularly upset about a dog saluting a fire hydrant, because a dog's place in the social order is firmly fixed. The littler the dog, the broader the liberties it is allowed, and there are some really spoiled-rotten poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, etc.

Burnstein's understanding of the issues involving plastic bags is equally limited. The Seattle bag law reminds me of the "bottle bills" of about thirty years ago, combinations of good intentions and naivety. The five-cent deposit on a soda bottle did not cause the man in the street to become a fanatical recycler. He simply treated it as a tax, and went on his way. The deposit did, however, make it worthwhile for bums to tip over public trash cans on the public sidewalk in order to "prospect" for bottles and cans. The soft drink bottlers continued to phase out glass bottles, which were well adapted to direct recycling, in favor of plastic bottles, which were not. In many public venues such as stadiums, glass bottles are not even permitted, on account of the well justified fear that they might be used as weapons. The bag law is likely to be similarly inconsequential. At a very rough average, a bag of groceries costs ten or twenty dollars. A charge of twenty cents for a bag will simply be ignored, treated as a tax. I presume that under the Seattle law, there will be no refunds for used plastic bags, so at least the bums will not be invading peoples' back yards in order to tip over their garbage cans. What's more, it is all quite pointless.

The average American uses about three tons of coal per year, practically all in the form of electricity, about six hundred gallons of gasoline-- nearly two tons, and a considerable quantity of natural gas and/or fuel oil, perhaps a couple of tons, depending on region, for heating, perhaps seven or eight tons in all. This dwarfs the consumption of every other raw material. On this scale, a couple of hundred pounds or less of paper and plastic per capita, including not just plastic bags but assorted food wrappings as well, is not all that significant. Furthermore, plastic and paper for packaging materials are quite sensibly made from residues or byproducts. An oil refinery is run to produce the maximum possible fraction of gasoline. Cheap plastic is typically made from the low-grade hydrocarbon gases which unavoidably develop during the refining process. It is very much the same principle as making glue from slaughterhouse offal, not from sirloin steaks. If these gases were not made into plastic, they would most likely be used as boiler fuel. Similarly, the forest products industry's major high value product is dimension lumber, such as two-by-fours. Paper is made from the incidental scrap and sawdust. When packaging trash is burned to make steam and then electricity, it is simply reverting to its original destiny.

In the real world, Americans are not eco-saints. If they go to the grocery store more frequently, they will do so in automobiles, and use correspondingly more gasoline. Eco-freaks make a sharp distinction between the things they handle and touch, and the things they do not handle and touch, as if the latter were somehow not there. Gasoline and electricity are out of sight, and out of mind. The "fussbudget green" mentality which obsesses about personal purity, and therefore becomes obsessed with packaging materials is really a kind of environmental Madonna-whore complex. The fussbudgets are essentially trying to exploit public confusion to legislate their own religious beliefs. Just as an Orthodox Jew believes that it is sinful to eat a cheeseburger (though not to eat beef and cheese at separate meals), the Eco-freaks believe that it is sinful to eat singly. This is of course an old idea, going back to St. Thomas More's Utopia, the idea that it is wrong to eat, save in an act of communion. Its modern embodiment is the so-called "Slow Food" movement. I do not propose to discuss whether this religious belief is right or wrong, but merely to observe that the vast majority of the population do not adhere to it. The proponents of this idea are trying to bury it under a pretext of energy. This kind of licensed fussbudgeting does substantial damage. It injures the credibility of people who are pushing for important and sensible measures, such as greater energy efficiency.


July 28, 2008 11:59 p.m. PT, City OKs 20-cent fee on plastic, paper bags. Council also outlaws foam food and drink containers, By Kathy Mulady, P-I Reporter




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