Clay Wirestone: I loathe Lawrence’s new plastic bag ban with a fiery passion. It’s still a good idea, though. (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The City of Lawrence brought down the hammer on disposable plastic bags.

As of March 1, shoppers need to bring their own bags to the grocery store, or use paper sacks instead. And I hate it.

To specify: I hate, hate, hate, hate it.

I’m not sure precisely why I reacted so strongly and viscerally to an earnest, well-intended piece of public policy. Perhaps I went to convenience stores too often and was seduced by the easy flimsiness of plastic bags, capable of holding a couple of bottles of diet soda or an array of bulky snacks. Perhaps I had grown too dependent on using those same flimsy bags for picking up detritus around the house or in the yard.

Whatever the case, I fumed.

This, I told more than one person, was why certain people hate liberals. This is why nanny-state criticisms stick to the good-natured folks who want to improve our towns or environment. They want to take something simple and handy away from you to turn you into a granola-chomping do-gooder like them.

People like liberals, I continued, when they expand freedoms for people. Same-sex marriage, recreational marijuana, access to contraception, you name it. These all allow people to experience the world more widely, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. The point, however, is these options offer Americans more choice rather than less.

People don’t like liberals when they take things away. Prohibition, gun control, stay-at-home health mandates — none of those found resounding success. The policies might be well intentioned and beneficial, but folks don’t like seeing their array of options constricted.

I annoyed quite a few people for a few days.

But then I remembered I was a grown-up.

Civic evolution

So what if I don’t like the plastic bag ban?

So what if I detest it?

We all have to do things that we don’t like for the greater good. We all pay for goods and services. We send taxes to the government. We accept that driving under the influence puts ourselves and others in danger. That is, we act like adults and take responsibility for ourselves. We don’t steal from others or refuse to pay taxes or get drunk and drive like maniacs. What’s more, we understand that those of us who choose to do such things will face consequences.

These days, I sometimes go without any bag. Sometimes I use a paper sack. Sometimes, yes, I reuse a bag from my existing supply.

It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t even make me (that) angry.

It also makes me think of the ways in which limiting freedoms can occasionally become popular. Back in 2010, the state of Kansas banned smoking in bars and restaurants. No one wants to return to those days, when a night out invariably ended with your clothes enveloped in cigarette fumes. No one thinks twice these days about putting metal and paper goods in a recycling bin, either.

We’ve accepted these changes and integrated them into our lives. We can’t imagine going back to the way things were.

That’s the kind of civic evolution defended by longtime Kansas Sierra Club lobbyist Zack Pistora in a recent episode of the the Kansas Reflector podcast. Lawmakers in Topeka have repeatedly tried to ban local communities — ones just like Lawrence — from passing such bans.

Sierra Club lobbyist Zack Pistora discusses Kansas' plastic pollution during a Feb. 28, 2024, recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast
 Sierra Club lobbyist Zack Pistora discusses Kansas’ plastic pollution during a Feb. 28, 2024, recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

“State lawmakers from other communities want to interfere with Lawrence’s democratic initiative there to reduce the plastic,” he told reporter Rachel Mipro. “The argument there is the business interests, backed by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the independent business bureau and the Restaurant and Hospitality Association, feel like this is against the rights of businesses to be able to choose the type of packaging container they want. It’s just unfair in our minds, because the city should be able to do as it wishes, especially when it’s something proactive to help the environment.”

He added: “This is the fourth bill in four years. So my joke is that they’ve actually recycled the legislation more than the actual plastic bag.”

All kidding aside, of course, Lawrence actually has decided to do something. Yes, bigger institutions should take action. Yes, state and national governments and multinational corporations should take the lead on reducing waste and improving our planet. But what if they don’t?

“They’re offering no statewide response to actually do something about the plastic problem,” Pistoa said. “And just for wider context, we have the Great Pacific Garbage Patch out there in the ocean, eight times bigger than the size of Kansas. And that’s just one of five gyres out there in the ocean, just whirlpools of plastic trash collecting out there from all the plastic waste. We see it on our roadways, we see it in our drainage ditches in Kansas. On the way here to talk with you today, I’m seeing it on the side of the road and and stuck in the trees and the fence lines.”

Responsible adults

I wanted to write about plastic bags for a couple of reasons. One, the ban happened recently, so I’m sure folks in Lawrence and Kansas still wonder about it.

But I wanted to take a wider view.

As citizens and responsible adults, we must be willing to separate our personal reactions in the moment from a broader, objective understanding of the situation. Sure, we may not like something. We may not understand something. We may, in fact, find something actively distressing.

But it could still be beneficial. We allow our base emotions to shape public policy.

This can be tough to remember when the platform of a major political party has become enmeshed in the vituperative id of a single man. But just because Donald Trump hates and fears the legal system doesn’t mean the legal system is corrupt. Just because he decided that Mike Pence betrayed him doesn’t mean his former vice president was a secret liberal. Just because he reportedly detests pets doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring a dog into your home.

We can overcome our base reactions. We can take a deep breath and remember the world doesn’t revolve around us and our desires.

We can, in short, work together to help one another and clean up our planet.

Even if it means doing something I hate.

Really, really hate.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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