The Orange County Register carried this story in their online edition today about the debate over a possible ban on plastic shopping bags in San Clemente. The story prominently featured Jim Bieber doing what we call in the PR professional a litle FUD — for “Fear” “Uncertainty” and “Doubt” showing off three apples he left in a reusbale shopping bag, which had some sort of meat byproduct in it, to “ferment” in his car for an undetermined amount of time.

The Apples were exhibit A, B. and C as being toxic due to contamination, and–you can’t make this up–Bieber told the city council: “There are 63,000 people in this city,” he told the council. “At one point, at one time, they’re going to mix up these bags. They’re not going to wash them with bleach. They’re going to put some produce in there, and some kid is going to eat it. On a million-dollar bet, I would not eat one of these apples.”

Now I do most of the shopping and cooking for my family. When you buy meat products at the store, they are wrapped in plastic and wrapped again in butcher paper, or if selected from the meat case, a second bag is availbale for use if a shopper wants it due to a leaky hamburger package. Apples are also collected in a plastic bag and usually tied off with a twist wire. Even if you place both the meat and the apples in the same bag, when you get home, the apples are washed and put away for later consumption; I always wash the meat and package it as the water not only cleans the meat but accelerates the freezing process, unless I’m cooking the meat that night.

Now the story doesn’t say how long Bieber left the groceries in his car to ferment, but I have to wonder: Does Bieber usually leave meat and fruit in his car for several hours? Does anyone? Did his ice cream melt? And what about the dairy products? Most people on a grocery store run, come right home afterwards to put the stuff away, unless you live where it gets cold in the winter and your car can act as a fridge.

The San Clemente city council isn’t buying Bieber’s argument either. Nor is city staff. From the Register story:

The City Council didn’t ask city staff to respond to Bieber’s concerns. But after the meeting, Tom Bonigut, assistant city engineer and staff liaison to the Coastal Advisory Committee, told the Register that the local resident’s dramatic show was based on a 2010, University of Arizona/Loma Linda University study later criticized by Consumer Reports. The magazine cited what it called a small sample size – 84 reusable bags – and said the study only found bacteria that cause disease in people with weak immune systems.

Still, the magazine reported, “it’s easy to spread bacteria from meat, fish or poultry to other foods – in your kitchen or in your grocery bags. So we do think it’s wise to carry those items in disposable bags. Reusable bags are fine for most everything else, but it’s a good idea to wash them occasionally.”

With the City Council’s selection of priorities, Bonigut said “we don’t have direction to pursue (the plastic-bag ordinance), and we’re not going to until we at some point get some other direction from council.”

Peter Salgado, a member of the Coastal Advisory Committee, urged the council Wednesday to do like Laguna Beach and Dana Point and enact a plastic-bag ban, which he called “a single step in changing how we think.

“It is this change in thinking that has resulted in stricter emissions standards, better air quality,” he said. “It’s this change in thinking that has led to banning Styrofoam. It’s this change in thinking that has led to banning smoking on our beaches.”

But I sympathize with Bieber. I have to wonder if he’s representing a client that makes and sells plastic bags to retailers, because if he is, he should have disclosed that.

Now I’ll tell you what. Using only plastic bags Bieber is advocating for, I’ll buy a egg salad sandwich from the local 7/11 and leave it on my car’s dashboard for eight or nine hours while I drive down to Tijuana for a full bottle of that fine Mexican water, place it in the same plastic bag and make it back to the surfside of San Clemente in time to trade those toxic apples with Bieber for my egg salad sandwich and Tijuana tap; we’ll wolf it down and see who lasts longer….

For the record, reusable bags — like the ones I take to the Farmer’s Market every weekend — are perfectly fine and do require a little wash every now and then; the best practice is to treat them like laundry and wash after using each time.

Some research on reusable bags reveals these facts:

Experts estimate that 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed and discarded annually worldwide—more than a million per minute.

Here are a few facts about plastic bags to help demonstrate the value of reusable bags—to consumers and the environment:

  • Plastic bags aren’t biodegradable. They actually go through a process called photodegradation—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic particles that contaminate both soil and water, and end up entering the food chain when animals accidentally ingest them.
  • According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 380 billion plastic bags are used in the United States every year. Of those, approximately 100 billion are plastic shopping bags, which cost retailers about $4 billion annually.
  • According to various estimates, Taiwan consumes 20 billion plastic bags annually (900 per person), Japan consumes 300 billion bags each year (300 per person), and Australia consumes 6.9 billion plastic bags annually (326 per person).
  • Hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine mammals die every year after eating discarded plastic bags they mistake for food.
  • Discarded plastic bags have become so common in Africa they have spawned a cottage industry. People there collect the bags and use them to weave hats, bags and other goods. According to the BBC, one such group routinely collects 30,000 bags every month.
  • Plastic bags as litter have even become commonplace in Antarctica and other remote areas. According to David Barnes, a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, plastic bags have gone from being rare in the late 1980s and early 1990s to being almost everywhere in Antarctica.

Some governments have recognized the severity of the problem and are taking action to help combat it.