Commentary: Jeff Siegel on the plastic bag ban debate

The city council’s debate about plastic grocery bags isn’t about plastic grocery bags. Nothing downtown is that straightforward. It’s about how the city is run and whether the neighborhoods will be allowed a say in how Dallas works.

How do I know this? Because, years ago, I did an interview with a man for a trade magazine who is part of what Observer columnist Jim Schutze describes as the culture of City Hall: “The staff at City Hall does not work for us, because it does not take its orders from our elected representatives. It takes its orders from the Park Cities.”

I was interviewing the man about retailing, and midway through the conversation — and I have no idea how this happened — he went off on recycling, a rampage about how useless it was, what a waste of time and money it was, and how the schools were brainwashing students about it. In his world view, defined by the Park Cities and the people he knew, recycling was stupid and there was no need for it. Because of this, he had a difficult time conceiving that other people might think differently.

Hence the odd directions the plastic-bag debate has taken. Kroger says it will devastate its business — the same Kroger whose CEO announced his retirement after increasing revenue over the last decade by $45 billion. A grocery trade group says a bag ban will cause death and disease, even though this has not happened in other parts of the world, like London and Paris, where people bring their own bags to the grocery store. Another expert says shoppers will desert Dallas supermarkets for suburban stores that use plastic bags, something for which there isn’t a lot of evidence — is someone going to drive five miles instead of five blocks because of bags? — but sounds good on the evening news.

The real reason so many people who don’t live here are opposed to the ban is that they think it’s dumb. In a way, this is understandable. They aren’t here to see the garbage that plastic bags produce; like the retailer I interviewed, it’s not in their worldview. But that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist. The Morning News reported that plastic bags accounted for 40 percent of the 70 tons of garbage cleaned up from Dallas rivers and greenbelts by one conservation group.

So when south Dallas councilman Dwaine Caraway pushes for a bag ban because he thinks it’s in the best interest of his neighborhood, because he understands about the 40 percent of 70 tons, the ban goes nowhere. Yes, Caraway can be a flake, and yes, he represents south Dallas, and those are reasons why his ideas usually get short shrift downtown. But the real reason the bag ban is stuck in limbo — like so many other things that affect the neighborhoods — is that the people who make the decisions here aren’t interested in the neighborhoods. We aren’t in their worldview.

The question to ask the council members who oppose the ban is not about disease or sales-tax revenues, but about grocery shopping. When’s the last time one of them went to the store? Some of them, I’ll bet, haven’t been in a while, which points to their very limited worldview. The other question to ask? Would their lives be that much more difficult if they had to bring bags with them when they did go to the grocery store?

Because, if the answer is yes, their worldview is even more limited than I thought it was, and it’s not like I expect a lot from the council. The world is full of death and war and starvation, and they’re whining about plastic bags? Your worldview can’t be more limited than that.

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