You know a community has its house in order when the biggest controversy it faces is whether to ban plastic bags at retail checkout counters.
That topped the agenda Monday night at the Lafayette City Council meeting, where the town's environmental task force implored officials to stanch the tide of plastic litter. Surely, you've noticed the bags whipping down Mt. Diablo Boulevard like windblown tumbleweeds, snagging on lampposts, tree branches and the whiskers of bearded men.
If you haven't, it may be because I'm kidding. I find the need for a ban a bit overblown. These bags are fully recyclable, as Mt. Diablo Recycling in Pittsburg proves 52 weeks a year. Plus, they're handy when walking the dog.
One Lafayette resident had another objection. She quoted Voltaire in warning the council of governmental overreach into personal freedom, although I'm not certain he ever took a position on plastic or paper.
Wherever you stand on this maelstrom, the passion of the bag reformers is to be admired. Eve Nichelini, lead speaker for Team Green, made a stirring case that 95 percent of plastic bags are not recycled, end up in landfills or streams and harm wildlife. The 95 percent figure is daunting, even if she never explained where it came from.
She further noted that plastic bags are made largely from fossil fuels, which are sucking the life from the planet, and all but two Bay Area counties -- Contra Costa and Solano -- already have enacted bans.
"We have the unique opportunity to be the first city in Contra Costa," she said, hopefully.
The proposed ordinance would outlaw plastic bags at grocery outlets and restaurants and would require store owners to charge customers as much as 25 cents apiece for each eco-friendly paper bag. This kick in the pants is designed to get shoppers to switch to reusable bags.
You'd have to think this idea would appeal to grocers, who pay between 9 to 12 cents for paper bags and up till now have given them away. Their profit margin on bags would surpass anything they get selling vegetables or cornflakes.
Hold on, said task force member Steve Richard: "What's happened in virtually all cases elsewhere is stores use that money to subsidize reusable bags. That makes them cheaper for customers."
Reusable bags, of course, have their own issues. If not regularly cleansed, they can harbor bacteria and spread food-borne illness, according to studies by the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University.
Nonsense, said task force member Linda Staaf, a retired operating room nurse: "You have more bacteria on your cellphone and your hands than you'll have in your bag."
I presume she wasn't talking just about me. But just in case, I washed my hands.
One curiosity is why this issue surfaced in Lafayette and why now. Richard said it could have been anywhere.
"I think it's sort of a wave that's going through California. It started in San Francisco and Berkeley, the most progressive places, and it's going everywhere."
So stock up on quarters, folks, or get yourself a reusable tote. The plastic bag police are like Canadian Mounties. They won't rest until they get their ban.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com