Plastic Bans: Curbing Choice for the Public Good

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Plastic Bans: Curbing Choice for the Public Good

image by: Magda Ehlers

Freedom in the United States has never been freedom to do absolutely anything. So none of us should get too bent out of shape by cities finally choosing measures to reduce municipal solid waste.

Restricting freedom seems oxymoronic. Yet limitations on liberty have always been part and parcel with freedom in the United States. The classic example comes from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. (Schenck v. United States, 1919)

Such is the logic driving the recent trend of municipalities' banning the sale of various single-use plastic products. Plastic bags were the first target, and with good reason. Labeled as "the most ubiquitous consumer item on Earth," in 2007 Salon reported that Americans were throwing away approximately 100 billion plastic bags per year, only 2% of which were recycled.

So it was that year that San Francisco, progressive as always, became the first U.S. city to institute any sort of ban on the distribution of single-use plastic bags, a ban that was broadened in 2012 to cover all retail and grocery stores. Similar bans have since been instituted across California, including in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Santa Barbara, along with cities like Portland, Austin, and Honolulu. Now, with Chicago poised to become the first Midwestern city to get in line and a recent appellate court ruling upholding San Francisco's ban, the momentum is clear.

Now San Francisco has taken the next logical step, banning single-use water bottles. For now the ban applies only on public property and at city-permitted events, but over the next four years the city will phase out the sale of all plastic bottles with a volume under 21 ounces (allowing for select exceptions).

One valid criticism might be that the ban shouldn't target water bottles, but rather plastic bottles period, since as it is the ban could tip the balance of products purchased by consumers somewhat toward beverage options less healthy than water. writer Adam Minter takes a harsher view, simply calling the ban "dumb." However, he doesn't make much of a case for why the ban is bad, even admitting that PET bottles (i.e., those made from polyethylene terephthalate, the stuff from which you drink your Dasani and Aquafina) accounted for 2.79 million tons of the municipal solid waste (MSW) generated in 2012, which was over 10% of the total MSW.

His criticism, rather, seems to be that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors didn't take aim at the best target, since PET is rather easy to recycle, as opposed disposable products such as milk cartons, juice boxes, and paper cups such as those distributed at Starbucks with your grande double-whipped mochified frappacappuccino, which San Francisco is leaving alone.

Minter is both wrong and right. If lawmakers in San Francisco and beyond want to make the biggest environmental impact, they will exert the political will to drive all vendors to the most environmentally sound practices possible. But that doesn't mean a baby step is a bad one.

Maybe San Francisco could have done better. Certainly most all of us—both cities and their denizens—can do better. That doesn't mean they would have done better to do nothing at all.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

Introducing Stitches!

Your Path to Meaningful Connections in the World of Health and Medicine
Connect, Collaborate, and Engage!

Coming Soon - Stitches, the innovative chat app from the creators of HWN. Join meaningful conversations on health and medical topics. Share text, images, and videos seamlessly. Connect directly within HWN's topic pages and articles.

Be the first to know when Stitches starts accepting users

The Latest from Moore Lowdown

Want to Reduce World Hunger? Eat Less Meat (Especially Beef)
Want to Reduce World Hunger? Eat Less Meat (Especially Beef)

America is one of the world leaders in per capita meat consumption—which means we’re also one of the most inefficient users of land and other resources when it comes to feeding people.

Can One Simple Change Double Organ Donation?
Can One Simple Change Double Organ Donation?

Die in the USA, and your organs go to waste unless you’ve opted in to the organ donation problem. But it doesn’t have to be this way—and in many countries, it isn’t.

Dedicated Bus Lanes: The Easiest Way to Improve Public Transit
Dedicated Bus Lanes: The Easiest Way to Improve Public Transit

The buses are there. The roadways are there. All that’s needed to make bus travel better⎯and therefore more viable⎯is the will to give them their own lane once in a while.

Stay Connected

Health Cloud