For A Nickel I Will

More than 35 years ago, upon graduating from college, I did what many kids of my generation did. I bought a backpack and a Eurail Pass and set out to see the world, without a gun on my shoulder. I flew into Paris’ De Gaulle Airport and promptly made my way to a cafe, where I sat on the street to learn what Ithaca failed to teach me.

Among the things I observed were shoppers with mesh bags for their delicious foodstuffs. Back home, baggers in supermarkets put groceries in paper bags. When shoppers got home, the paper bags, often torn to shreds at that point, were thrown away. In Paris, the mesh bags came with shoppers, left with shoppers and were then used again. This seemed so . . . unAmerican.

In the years that followed, I wondered why this was never adopted here.* Why did people not bring their own bags rather than use disposable paper bags, which required the murder of trees and space on Staten Island? At least the brown papers bags could be made of recycled paper and would swiftly biodegrade.

But Americans, being slaves to utter convenience, eventually found a “better” substitute for the brown paper bags. Plastic! Yes, The Graduate was prescient. Plastic bags, unlike their paper ancestors, wouldn’t rip and spill groceries on the street. They would last, unmolested, until the next ice age. Meaning that once created, this paean to American convenience would be with us forever. We do so love our packaging.

Somehow, it occurred to people that this might not be the best thing for the environment, a nation built upon used plastic bags. Finally, reusable bags came into vogue and people began bringing them to the store to carry home their garlic mashed potatoes from the deli counter. But not everyone, because the only thing that trumps Americans’ demand for convenience is laziness. So supermarkets continued to off the dreaded plastic bags, which held maybe two items at most, such that one lazy person could require quite a few.

Rather than push for people to stop being lazy, or selfish, or foolish, or lazy (did I mention that?), the forces of environmental concern came up with a means to incentivize people to stop using those nasty plastic bags.

A lousy bill reached Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk this week. It would block New York City’s attempt to impose a nickel fee on plastic bags, as a way to reduce their use.

Mr. Cuomo could have vetoed it. He could have said: This bill is bad for the environment, because it allows billions of bags to keep choking the city’s waste stream. It’s undemocratic, because it throttles the city’s ability to attack its own pollution problem in its own way. It’s a classic case of the state shoving its will down the city’s throat.

And what did Andy do? Andy gonna Andy.

Instead, Mr. Cuomo said the city’s measure was “an earnest attempt at a real solution” — and then he signed the bill to block it.

Did Andy suddenly discover his libertarian groove?

At the bill signing, Mr. Cuomo blasted the nickel fee as a “$100-million-per-year windfall to merchants.” He had a point there: A better measure would allocate enough revenue from the fee to retailers to cover the cost of the bags and then commit the remainder to some public purpose.

If nothing else, the bags, first paper (which some still provide, upon request, and are hidden under the counter so the unwoke don’t realize it’s an option), then plastic, were free. Markets gave them to customers because they had to get the groceries out to their SUVs somehow, and there’s a thing about putting purchased items into bags that makes shoppers feel respected and sellers feel as if shoppers paid.

But if there was a law that forced shoppers to pay, then the markets couldn’t be blamed for collecting it. And if the fee left a little meat on the bone for the supermarkets, well, don’t they deserve some extra plastic love too?

Ironically, the issue for the New York Times wasn’t the extraction of that extra nickel per bag from shoppers. It was who got the nickel. Because there is always “some public purpose” to which money can be put.

But as long as it’s good for the environment, isn’t that reason enough? Therein lies the bigger irony. The bags are an environmental nightmare. Of that, there is no doubt. And yet, the New York Times, so deeply concerned with global warming and saving whales, doesn’t propose outlawing plastic bags altogether because they are just an awful, and completely unnecessary, idea. No, they just want the nickel, as long as it can be used to fund more government solutions to the problems humanity causes itself.

I loved Paris. I still love Paris. I wish I was there now.

*This was one of many ideas that were prevalent in Paris, but unheard of here, that gave rise to my puzzlement. Others included crepe carts and on demand hot water heaters in bathrooms.

21 thoughts on “For A Nickel I Will

  1. Richard

    Sounds like a trash collection/landfill problem, which is usually handled by the state/city. Private trash collection/landfill would likely charge noticeably more for plastic bags because they couldn’t quickly reuse the land before the next ice age. Recycling plastic bags would be more common. In contrast, the state/city likely charges a flat fee/tax per ton regardless of the contents. This isn’t a market problem.

  2. Rick

    Let me help. The people of Paris and the rest of Europe use those bags because their kitchens are about as big as a closet. Their refrigerators are the size of a microwave which means they have to shop every day buying small quantities of groceries. We rented a new, 6 bedroom house, in Dingle, Scotland a few year back. The kitchen was large but had a dorm refrigerator with a freezer the size of a loaf of bread. We had to make the 10 mile, one way, drive to Dingle town every day to buy food. You can see how the savings just pile up.
    Don’t even get me started on the washer and dryer or water heater.

      1. Fubar

        From my latest drive-by treatise on exciting new methods in bag development:

        “Your dingle, I rightly surmise,”
        she said, “is exactly the size
        to provide me delight
        for the rest of the night.”
        Now it’s morning — bags under my eyes!

  3. Mike Guenther

    Those plastic bags can be recycled if only people would. Most supermarkets have receptacles for that very purpose.

    But as you say, most of us are too lazy to collect all those bags up and haul them back to the market, me included. We do however, save them for reuse for various purposes.

            1. SHG Post author

              Jokes on you. Bill’s not a lawyer. I can’t speak for any of the others, but I don’t think they are either.

            2. B. McLeod

              Perhaps not today, but a host of fine, ABA-accredited law schools are perpetually recruiting. Perhaps Bill and Sue could get in at Thomas Jefferson. Assuming, that is, that Sue isn’t licensed already. (I look forward to the ABA proposed rules on how multiple identities should be licensed).

  4. LTMG

    Way back when, the reason touted for the transition from brown paper to plastic bags was, “Save the Trees!” I remember that very clearly. I suppose that saving trees is no longer fashionable, so now we have paper bags in stores again. In California, the fee for a bag is 10 cents which, it seems, goes to the State government ostensibly for undefined environmental purposes. Maybe the bag fee will be the way the governor funds the galloping cost increases for the high-speed rail boondoggle.

    1. Dragoness Eclectic

      “Save the Trees” was moronic; paper bags are made from pulp wood, which is farmed. Paper bags are manufactured from a renewable resource and should be encouraged; plastic bags are not, though I think they are recyclable.

      1. SHG Post author

        DE, do you ever consider the efficacy of replying to a comment left days earlier, when people have moved on? It’s kind of, how do I say this nicely, nuts.

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