Plastic bags are the brown M&Ms of the green movement. You know, the brown M&Ms that were mentioned in Van Halen's performance contracts; they weren't a big thing, but they were the sign that people were serious about doing their jobs and reading their contracts. David Lee Roth is quoted in Snopes:
So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl ... well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you're going to arrive at a technical error. They didn't read the contract. Guaranteed you'd run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.
Plastic bags bans are like brown M&Ms. They tell you what kind of people you are dealing with, whether they are serious. Whether they are crazy. They are not a bag, they are a metaphor, a symbol, a totem. Or as Adam Sternbergh puts it in New York Magazine, The Fight Over Plastic Bags Is About a Lot More Than How to Get Groceries Home. He looks at the fights to ban bags in in Arizona, the subsequent fight at the state level to ban bag bans, the bigger issues involved that go way beyond a slip of poly, but in fact part of that grand plan by the UN to take over our lives:
Others see the skirmish as part of a larger war: The unending fight to combat government tyranny and protect the American Way. Some commentators have even connected efforts to regulate plastic bags to a conspiracy involving Agenda 21, a U.N. sustainability initiative that’s become a focus of fears about the advent of one-world control.
But that's why they are such an important symbol. Sternbergh notes that it's not like saying "let's ban cars." In the key paragraph:
It’s not like plastic bags are that much worse than other plastic products. In a sense, plastic bags have become a victim of their own mundanity. Cars are an environmental problem, too, but few people are suggesting an outright ban on cars, because people love their cars and a world without cars is hard to imagine. Not so for plastic bags: Everyone uses them but nobody loves them, and they’re easily replaced with other kinds of bags. Which is precisely why they’ve become such a fitting symbol of a striking modern dilemma: They’re a ubiquitous convenience that’s not essential, that no one’s truly enamored of, yet one from which we can’t seem to extricate ourselves. Of all the perils facing the planet, plastic bags seem like an easy one to fix. But we can’t even do that.
Now New York City is going through the bag ban battle and again the bags are a metaphor for everything about the city.
The plastic-bag debate as a whole, though, highlights how New York exists as a kind of paradox: a self-consciously progressive city (certainly by national standards) that nonetheless, through political inertia or a weirdly proud embrace of civic dysfunction, has a difficult time supporting progressive policies.
It's a great article; Sternbergh is a terrific writer. (Fun at fiction too; I love his Spademan series.) I could block quote the whole thing but my editor would yell at me, so read it all at New York Magazine.
Given that Sternbergh was raised in Toronto, I was surprised that he did not discuss that city's weird bag battle, that comedy where I wrote Toronto is First Large Canadian City To Ban The Plastic Bag, And Rob Ford Is The Greenest Toronto Mayor Ever and the subsequent Directionless and Mindless Toronto City Council Rescinds Proposed Plastic Bag Ban and every progressive in the City wanted to put a bag over their heads, having trouble deciding between paper out of embarrassment or plastic to end it all. Everywhere a metaphor.