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A Plastic Bag Ban and the Abuse of Power

Newport Daily News journalist Marcia Pobzeznik reports that plastic-bag-ban mania has hit Tiverton, and residents should take note of the futility of the advocacy and the disturbing instincts of elected officials.

Start with the disturbing instincts.  Council member Patricia Hilton, whose suggested response to the scourge of plastic bags comes straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, in which the government unleashes school children as in-the-home spies:

… Councilwoman Patricia Hilton said she has picked up a lot of plastic bags while cleaning Fogland and Grinnell’s beaches, and even sees the tattered bags stuck to tree branches. But before an ordinance is drafted to ban the bags, she said, there needs to be discussions with merchants. She also suggested educating children about the benefits of reusable bags versus single-use plastic bags because they will police their parents.

Hilton apparently believes that government’s providing educational services creates an excellent opportunity to manipulate children into conflict with their parents to advance a cause whenever a handful of elected officials agree with activists that the cause is righteous.  While one would have to research how much class time must be devoted to an issue in order to turn children into a government youth corps, Tiverton parents might rightly wonder whether the school district’s academic results illustrate available slack in the school day.  Just 28% of Tiverton high school students are proficient in math and fewer than half in reading.  Perhaps indoctrination can wait until those results improve.

On the other hand, perhaps the school department could seize on the issue to provide practical lessons in math, science, and critical thinking.  Consider this, from bag scold and former Town Council member Bill Gerlach:

According to Gerlach, every year Americans use 100 billion single-use plastic bags, which have an average lifespan of 12 minutes but take 1,000 years to break down in the environment.

One needn’t even get into the question of how activists arrived at these numbers.  (The 12 minute number, for example, seems like it must ignore the car ride home from the store and the repeated uses to which families often put the bags.)  What good would a bag ban in Tiverton do when up to 95% of all plastic pollution in the oceans comes from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa?  And given the town’s minimal commercial property base, what percentage of plastic bags used by residents could possibly come from stores within the council’s reach anyway?

Last night, departing Town Administrator Paul McGreevy warned the Budget Committee about an upcoming wave of spending — from 10% growth in debt spending to a 44% increase in non-police pensions to a 38% increase in the cost of trash pickup.  Perhaps the Town Council should focus on these numbers rather than abusing their authority in order to force businesses in the town to bend for fruitless environmentalism and to indoctrinate school children.

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Justin Katz

Justin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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