Bob Dunning

Why write an ‘ordinance’ when you can craft a novel?

By March 9, 2011

While I tend to agree with my colleague Rich Rifkin and many others that the Great Plastic Bag Ban of 2011 is a solution in search of a problem, I figured I ought to at least take a look at the fine print in the proposed ordinance before going any further.

What I didn’t realize is just how long it would take to leaf through this mini-novel posing as an ordinance. I mean, it took me most of an otherwise lovely Saturday afternoon to read it start to finish and even then I wasn’t convinced I fully understood what is being proposed.

I figured the ordinance would be one short paragraph along the lines of “You can no longer use plastic bags for groceries in the city of Davis.” Turns out it was a bit longer than that. Like a thousand times longer.

After all, before you can ban something you first have to define what it is you wish to ban an also be sure to define those things you don’t wish to ban. Trust me, it can be quite a process, even with as many brilliant minds as we have in the Second Most Educated City in America.

For instance, the word “Person,” for purposes of this ordinance, “means any natural person, firm, corporation, partnership or other organization or group however organized.”

So, and I’m trying to read between the lines here, even a 122-person law firm standing in the checkout line can’t carry a dozen oranges back to the office in a plastic bag. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Maybe it doesn’t say that at all.

“Customer” means “any person purchasing goods from a store,” but try as I might, I can’t find whether or not it’s legal for a shoplifter to remove goods from a store using a plastic bag. Probably an oversight that will be corrected when the City Council finally gets a hold of this.

“Plastic Carryout Bag” means “any bag made predominantly of plastic derived from either petroleum or a biologically-based source, such as corn or other plant sources, which is provided to a customer at the point of sale.”

If I’m reading this right, if you were presented this “plastic carryout bag” in the meat department, you would be allowed to walk out of the store with it proudly in your grasp, but if you were presented the same bag at the “point of sale,” it’s felony bag-abuse.

“Plastic carryout bag includes compostable and biodegradable bags, but does not include reusable bags, produce bags or product bags.”

I don’t know about you, but trying to keep all that straight while not running afoul of the law is enough to make me want to shop in Woodland.

“Produce bag” or “product bag” means “any bag without handles used exclusively to carry produce, meats or other food items to the point of sale inside a store or to prevent such food items from coming into direct contact with other purchased items.”

But wait, if I put apples into a produce bag and then put onions into another produce bag so they don’t come in contact, I fear I will be in violation of the ordinance because I have yet to “purchase” either item, and the definition states very clearly that my intent must be “to prevent such food items from coming into direct contract with other purchaced items.”

In other words, in order to lawfully use a produce bag to keep the apples from the onions, I must first purchase the onions, exit the store, then reenter and place the apples in a separate produce bag.

And don’t forget, this must be a produce bag without handles.

Unfortunately, we’ve only scratched the surface here. There are many, many more definitions to slog through before we take the quiz at the end of the proposal and line up at the public microphone to give our advice and consent to the City Council.

Stay tuned. This battle is just beginning.

— Reach Bob Dunning at [email protected]

Bob Dunning

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