Save the planet; use a plastic bag

Sometimes an idea seems so right but is so wrong.

What could possibly be wrong with growing corn for ethanol by using biomass, helping farmers, and creating energy independence? What happened, of course is that the ethanol mandates and subsidies drove up food prices, reduced wetlands, consumed a vast amount of water, and has little if any effect on energy independence.

It was only a few years ago that libertarians warned that growing corn to make ethanol as a gasoline substitute was a really dreadful idea. We were proven right and there is now almost universal disdain for the use of corn to make ethanol, except, of course, by the ethanol industry.

“The National Academy of Sciences estimated that globally biofuels expansion accounted for 20-40% of the price increases seen in 2007-8, when prices of many food crops doubled.”

To be fair, the EPA says that its ethanol rules aren’t driving up food prices. . But in that same article we read:

Meat producers and anti-hunger advocates were outraged. Because the law protects the flow of corn into fuel, they say, it drives corn prices higher for everyone else. Kristin Sundell, from ActionAid USA, predicted that “people around the world will go hungry due to spiking food prices while the EPA stubbornly clings to its misplaced faith in biofuels as a sustainable energy solution.” A of dairy, poultry, and livestock producers asked “how many more jobs and family farms have to be lost before we change this misguided policy.”

So now in the city of Boulder we have another really bad idea: tax ten cents for nearly every plastic shopping bag.

What could possibly be wrong with what the city council documented in its disposable bag fee ordinance?

… supports efforts to reduce the amount of waste that must be land filled and pursue “zero waste” as a long term goal by emphasizing waste prevention efforts.


… That the use of disposable bags has severe impacts on the environment on a local and global scale, including greenhouse gas emissions, …
The ordinance found more. We will deal with the two above.

The city council starts with the assumption that there a shortage of landfill space. As Slate Magazine says, “When will the United States run out of landfill space? Not for centuries. … the amount of space left in the ground isn’t a pressing concern.”

And, of course, there is the “zero waste” and landfill myths. From Ecoworld: “Recycling is not always the environmentally correct choice. Many items we recycle come from abundant raw materials and are inert and harmless when dumped. It costs more to recycle these than to bury the used and manufacture the new from scratch. Glass is a perfect example; plastic runs a close second. … All of America’s garbage for the next century could fit in just one landfill, only about 10 miles square.” That’s 0.000026 of the U.S.’s land.

We argue that using plastic bags, even disposable ones, helps the environment. The most obvious help is that plastic bags sequester hydrocarbons. 72.5% of the plastic bags used in the U.S. and are made out of polyethylene which is a waste product of natural gas refining. If ethane is not used to make plastic, it will have to be burned off, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, so much for the council’s myth about greenhouse gas emissions from these bags.

So why does the council continue these myths? To us it is obvious: For the political control it exerts. The constant reminder every time we go to the grocery that government is watching is more effective than a picture of Big Brother at the checkout counter. Admitting that they are in error is simply too embarrassing. So the myths and lies are perpetuated.

We suspect that another reason that the council imposed this fee is that the plastic bags gum up the recycling machinery. We reply to our straw man argument that technology should work for people rather than the other way around.

We, the taxpayers, will be paying to perpetuate the myths and lies. Part of the ordinance reads, “Funds from the Disposable Bag Fee shall be used … Educate residents, businesses, and visitors … with mitigating the affects [sic] of single-use bags …”

Besides practicing real environmentalism, the wizards at the city council should learn basic grammar, too. The word should be effects and not affects.

And speaking of effects, there are other economic effects of this tax:

A tax would also impact local businesses as evidenced by other U.S. cities with similar taxes and bans. The intended impact is to have consumers switch to so-called “reusable” bags. The Chamber of Commerce of Victor Valley in California recently advised businesses that thieves often rely on reusable bags to steal merchandise. Out in Seattle, grocery stores have also suffered due to a spike in thefts. One store even blamed the city’s plastic bag ban for thousands of dollars in losses. Closer to home, in Washington, D.C., a Safeway supermarket representative noted that there has been a rise in shoplifting since the bag fee started.

The council calls this new bag tax a fee, but, of course, it’s a new tax on those who wish to use a product. According to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, new taxes require a vote of the citizens and fees don’t. So the city council calls it a fee. George Orwell’s famous quote is worth repeating, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

So what are we Libertarians going to do about this?

We are considering (a) Organizing a citizens’ initiative to place on the ballot a prohibition on this new tax. (b) Handing out free plastic bags in front of the stores of cooperating retailers.

Boulder would not be the first in Colorado to overturn a bag ban. Basalt, Colo., voters overturn bag ban

So if you want to help restrain an out-of-control city council and help save the planet, take a plastic shopping bag from us.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Animal House’s Bluto Blutarsky, “Grab a bag. Don’t cost nothin’.”


Ralph Shnelvar
Chair, Libertarian Party of Boulder County

Quentin McKenna
Libertarian activist

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