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We adapted to recycling, we can live without plastic bags

Plastic bags and rubbish litter the banks of the Gwynns Falls near the Gwynns Falls Trail at the Carroll Park Golf course.
Plastic bags and rubbish litter the banks of the Gwynns Falls near the Gwynns Falls Trail at the Carroll Park Golf course.(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

This year is the 20th anniversary of John Waters' "Serial Mom," starring Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, a sweet but homicidal housewife in suburban Baltimore. She's married to a dentist (Sam Waterston), and they have a couple of teenage children (the daughter played by Ricki Lake). Life is good.

Except, of course, Beverly kills people over the slightest slight — a neighbor takes her favorite parking space, another eats roast chicken with his mouth open, another forgets to rewind a rented videotape, stuff like that.

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When she finally goes on trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court, Beverly fires her attorney and defends herself, quite effectively. One by one, she destroys the state's witnesses by discrediting them.

"Mrs. Ackerman," Beverly says with a sinister glare, "do you ... recycle?"

There's a 10-second pause, strains of Hitchcockian music, shots of intense faces all around the courtroom, until ...

"No," Mrs. Ackerman confesses, and the spectators and jurors react with disgust. "I don't have room in my kitchen!" the witness pleads. But there isn't a sympathetic eye in the house, and Beverly returns to the trial table, having just accused Mrs. Ackerman of a crime against humanity.

It was 1994, and that was John Waters' film commentary on the rise of zealous recycling. If you're of a certain age, you recall the period.

There was resistance to recycling. People thought it would be a big pain in the neck to separate bottles, cans, newspapers and magazines from their trash. They saw it as government overreach. And they resented the attitude, real or projected, that if you didn't recycle you were an environmental sluggard who deserved nothing but sneers and public derision.

I bring up "Serial Mom" because I just caught it again recently — it's still a hoot, with shots of Ruxton, Stoneleigh and Riderwood, cameos by Suzanne Somers and Patty Hearst — and because the Baltimore City Council voted to take us into the next frontier of personal-scale environmentalism: the banning of plastic shopping bags.

The reaction was swift: howls of derisive laughter, then very loud scoffing, claims that the City Council was out to destroy retailers, and the mayor promising her veto of the anti-business measure. We have even heard a claim that the election last week of a Republican as Maryland's next governor meant the bag-banning City Council was out of step with the times.

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Nobody asked me, but I don't see what the big deal is.

But then, I didn't see what the big deal was about recycling back in the day.

A plastic bag ban is neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic nor Republican. Even libertarians must feel some disgust when they see plastic bags wrapped in trees, against chain-link fences, floating in creeks and rivers.

Now, telling people not to litter is a wonderful idea and something we need to work on again. But that's a lot harder than just reducing the number of items that could get into — literally fly into — the trash stream. That seems practical to me.

Polls show that people don't have a lot of faith in government to do the right thing or fix big problems. And in the case of the City Council, there's a tendency to scoff when its members take on what seem like grandiose objectives: banning polystyrene foam containers (didn't pass); mandating a certain level of local hiring from large contractors (the city solicitor ruled it illegal); making cops wear body cameras (ditto, the city solicitor).

There are some who believe City Council members should just make sure the potholes get patched and check their do-good schemes at the chamber door.

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But if local government doesn't take the initiative on something like this, who does? Who would ban plastic bags?

Giant? Giant recently dropped its nickel reward for every reusable bag we bring to the store; the nickel back had been in place for 20 years. In a statement last month, Giant President Gordon Reid seemed to suggest that his shoppers had become sufficiently eco-hip: "We've continued this incentive program over these many years, but times have changed and the public is much more aware of environmental issues and our responsibility, as individuals, to reduce our environmental impact."

Maybe that's true in parts of Giant's territory, but I still see plenty of plastic bags coming out of the supermarkets where I shop.

Would Safeway take the initiative? Its lobbyist, Bruce Bereano, says eliminating plastic bags would mean more paper bags, which are more expensive to manufacture, and the added cost would be passed along to customers.

Maybe that's true.

But if you say, "Sorry, no more plastic bags," customers will get the idea fast. More of us will start putting reusable bags where they're handy, which is key. Leave some in your car, or pick up a couple of those nylon bags that fold into small pouches and stick them in a purse or briefcase or whatever you sling over the shoulder.

It's really not that hard. I bet even John Waters does that now.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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