Friday, January 22, 2010

2010: Bagging Plastic To Spite Our Face

We implemented the bag tax in DC. As expected, it's resulted in a dramatic dropoff in the number of plastic bags people use at the supermarket. Supposedly this is going to help the Anacostia.

The great irony of this tax is that the more effective it is at changing consumer behavaior regarding supermarket bags, the less effective it will be at cleaning up the Anacostia.

DC projected $3.55 million from this tax in 2010, and slightly less ($3 million) in 2011. The figured drops off dramatically from there. I am not sure how they came up with this math - e.g. why people would suddely, two years into the tax, start paying for the bags half as often. Almost everyone I know changed their behavior pretty much immediately.

But lets look at a few other figures too.

Supermarket plastic bags used annually in the U.S.: 100 billion.*
Population of the U.S.: 305 million
Bags used per person per year (est): 327

Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Well...

Gallons of oil consumed annually in the U.S.: 318 billion
Gallons of oil needed to make 100 billion bags: 500 million
Percentage of U.S.'s oil consumption used on supermarket bags: 1.57%
Gallons of oil used per person per year on plastic bags: 1.6 gallons

That's right. 1.6 gallons.

Let's assume that the numbers I got are low estimates, since they were from the Wall Street Journal (even though they were cited by a bag-recycling web site.)

Let's quadruple them. Now you have 6.4 gallons per year.

How many gallons of gas do you use every week? How much energy do you use to heat and cool your house, and power your TV so you can watch "Real World DC?" Trust me. It's far more than that every week.

Okay, well we need money to clean up the Anacostia. What about the revenue?

Let's look at some basic figures for a minute.

Population of DC: 600,000
Bags used per year in DC @ 327 per person: 196 million
Total potential annual revenue from the bag tax, if nobody stopped using plastic bags: @ 3.5 cents per bag**: 6.8 million
DC's estimate for years 1 and 2: 3.5 million and $3 million

Does anyone else think that DC's estimates are, er, a bit optimistic? Like absolute fantasy? That would mean that the tax resulted in only a 50% reduction in bag use.

Have you guys been to a supermarket since January 1st? Nobody's paying the tax.

I see a lot of bottles and cans. Not so many bags.
Further, the "per person per year" estimates of carryout bag use include all the bags that are not subject to the tax, that is, from establishments that don't sell food. Like Home Depot and Marshall's. And any place that doesn't have sitdown seating is also not subject, like crappy chinese carryout places.

My estimate is that bag use is reduced by 80-85% in the first year. My estimate for the revenue from this tax is under $1 million in the first year.

OK, so we're not going to save the planet by banning bags, and there probably won't be a lot of cash coming in either. But woo hoo, 80% less trash, right?

As readers of my blog know, I hate trash. I pick it up from my street every day when I walk my dog. I am an environmentalist. I would like nothing more than to see some kind of useful legislation passed to help trash and the environment - like a bottle bill. I am personally, intimately familiar with exactly what kind of trash ends up on the streets of DC, and consequently, in the river.

So what I can't help wondering is, have these people who want to save the river ever looked at it? Do they live in DC? Do they have any concept of the kinds of trash that are produced in this town?

This NRDC blog post which is, ironically, a love-fest for the DC bag tax, has several choice pictures of the Anacostia. One of them is reproduced above.

Please take a look at those pictures and tell me, honestly, what difference you think there will be because there are 80% fewer plastic bags being handed out at Safeway. Mind you, Eddie Leonard's Chinese Carryout will still be giving plastic bags, and certainly everyone drinking their Schlitz Malt Liqour on the sidewalk will still be buying one for 5 cents. I am pretty sure that the segment of the population that tosses their 24 ounce can-in-bag on the sidewalk after conusmption will not be bringing their own canvas bag to the liquor store.

I can see, I am pretty sure, a single plastic bag in all four of the pictures on that blog post. On the other hand, I see an unbelievable number of bottles, cans, paper, tires, whatever. Basically, everything BUT plastic bags.

That's because plastic bags are a tiny portion of the trash we produce.

The people who want to clean up the Anacostia know this. But their goal was to get an appropriation of money that went directly to their cause, not to reduce trash. Unfortunately, it is almost certain that they will get neither, but the residents of DC will get a really inconvenient and regressive tax.

I want to clean up the Anacostia. The right way to do this is to figure out how much it would cost to clean and maintain the river, and appropriate it from the general fund. This means we all pay our fair share, and it gets done.

I also want to improve the overall trash situation in DC. I want nothing more. I am an anti-trash crusader. But every day, when I pick up trash, you know what I see? Bottles and cans. The only plastic bags I ever see contain carryout restaurant trash, which won't be taxed, and liquor bottles, which certainly won't go away.

If we want to solve trash in this city, and the Anacsotia, we need a bottle bill. It has worked almost overnight in every place it's been implemented. Even as some people don't change their habits, others are happy to clean up the world for 5 or 10 cents a bottle. It's such a no-brainer.

But it takes more work than a bag tax. On the other hand, it will also do something. But around here everyone is so selfishly focused on their cause that they are willing sacrifice the greater good for a short-term benefit to their single cause. The so-called environmentalists who got this thing passed should be ashamed of themselves. There is already a great deal of backlash in the blog and media from people who think the tax is stupid, and complain because now they have to buy bags to replace the ones that used to be free. The ones we used for dog crap and trash and so on. Oh yeah - and trash bags you buy are made with about 5 to 10 times as much oil as a typical supermarket bag. How awesome for the environment is that?

So at the end of the day, we have a tax that will almost certainly raise very little money, inconvenience and annoy many, and have little or no impact on trash.

But we also lost something very valuable: goodwill. If we ever had a chance of passing a bottle bill in the near future, we wasted that political capital on this bag tax. Imagine what all those people who hate the bag tax will say when you try to convince them to return their bottles? Probably, "enough is enough."

So thanks, so-called environmentalists, for selfishly taking an opportunity to make some real change, and squandering it for your narrowly focused cause.

Myself, I'll still be picking up trash every day just as always, except I'll be paying for the bags to pick it up with now. The Anaocostia will probably look pretty much the same, and we've lost any chance at a bottle bill.

*Source: The Wall Street Journal (via

** The bag tax is 4 cents per bag, or 3 cents per bag if a business offers a reusable bag credit. 1 cent of the 5 cent tax goes directly to the business and is not paid to DC. I split the difference for this estimate.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Official End of The Holidays

Many people think that the holidays end after New Year's Day. Not so. The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., in addition to changing the shape of civil rights in this country forever, is a Federal holiday that eases us out of vacationland. Many people have just finished their first full week of work in about a month, and this well-placed holiday helps ease the pain of a long, dark time with no holidays to come. With the exception of President's Day next month, we don't have much to look forward to until July 4th. That is, other than three more months of cold.

Hello, delicious piggy...
We got our January summer, though. It seems that just about every year in DC comes with an unseasonably warm few days in January. Back in the day, when it used to be hot in DC, that meant we got a few days of 60 and 70 degree weather oddly placed in the dead of winter. This year, it meant we got a couple days that barely edged into the 50s. But the timing over the long weekend couldn't have been better, and I took advantage of the relative balminess to smoke a seven pound pork shoulder.

It was delicious. And will continue to be as it provides leftovers for a week. This has got to be the cheapest, most delicious way to eat imaginable. Though it takes about 8 hours, the effort is pretty minimal thanks to the invention of the propane smoker.

Some purists will revile the use of propane to make barbecue. These poor luddites, clutching on to their rusty oil-drum smokers like a shipwrecked sailor to his overturned lifeboat, are only limiting themselves with their sad devotion to an ancient religion. They are doomed to babysit their barbecue for hours, constantly adding charcoal and working hard to maintain the sweet spot of 225 degrees needed for pulled pork perfection. But with propane, you can more or less "set it and go." I'll check in every hour or so to make sure everything's still good and add more hickory chips as they are consumed, but this is as good as any barbecue cooked with dead trees. And it's dirt cheap. A seven pound pork shoulder is about 10 bucks. Throw in some buns, cabbage for cole slaw and some baked beans, and the total cost to feed about 20 people (or 2 people for a week) is about 15 bucks.

Apropos of cheap eating, I read an interesting account from an observer in the kitchen at a DC public school. Recently, DC has changed from a system of completely prepared food that's just reheated on-site, to completely on-site prep. This should result in better quality and nutrition, in theory, though in practice it doesn't sound a lot different, since it sounds like everything they are working with is processed. They didn't even have a range yet at this school. Sounds about right for a typical DC improvement. But the cost per meal is $2.68. I am not sure if that's just food or the total cost of the operation, but I say let them eat pork barbecue! Even at retail prices my cost per meal is under a buck.

Anyway, inbetween smoker check-ins, I was working on my bathroom. For those who have not followed my progress on this debacle, the project began slightly more than six months ago. That puts the timeline officially in the "ridiculous" category. When I gutted the bathroom on July 4th of last year, never in my worst ADD nightmare did I imagine that it would not be finished before calendar turned 2010. That "milestone," combined with my fiancee's gentle observation that it was getting a little silly at this point, refocused my efforts. Over the last two weekends, I finished all the tiling and grouting. The shower was used for the first time without plastic liners all around the enclosure on Saturday.

So there is a light at the end of the tunnel. All that's left is the transom over the glass-block window, which is still in the hands of the artisan but should be finished soon, and some drywall finishing/sanding and painting. Then, only then, sometime around 7 months after the first hammer swing, will the "under construction" signs shall be removed. Keep your fingers crossed.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Bad Biker of the Day

You know, this is really altogether too easy, but if this is what it takes to convince people that running red lights on a bike both commonplace and unsafe, then so be it.

On my way back from having my truck inspected (which is worthy of another post, actually, since things have changed down there) I drove about four miles from the Half Street inspection station back home to Columbia Heights. Downtown, a cyclist ran a red light in heavy traffic two cars ahead of me. Naturally, since this was on my mind, I pulled out my camera, ready for the next one.

That didn't take long. Below, joker cutting me off at 13th and Florida.

Bike Red Light Runner

Once home, I also snapped a picture of one of my neighbors who, for reasons that completely escape me, parks their bike crossways to the sidewalk. It's here often, blocking a good chunk of the sidewalk, and actually sticking into the street.

While I would never dream of purposely hitting their bike while parking, it is certainly an inconvenience to both people parking and pedestrians, and sooner or later someone's going to hit them accidentally. I can't think of any rational reason why they don't just park sideways in the treebox so it doesn't block anything. Or alternatively, in their ample front yard, which features a chain-link fence. Yet every day it's like this.

Another person parks their bike to a light pole on the sidewalk near my house. It's white. I call it the "ghost bike." But they always park parallel to the road, so there's no problem. I like the ghost rider.

Bad Bike Parker

One other thought I had related to cyclists who argue that red-light running only endagers themselves.

Though I strongly disagree with that premise in the first place, I assume that you likewise don't think people should adhere to applicable seatbelt and helmet laws?

There are consequences to putting yourself in harm's way that extend beyond your own, apparently not that valuable, life.

Marriage Counseling for Cyclists and Drivers

It is no secret that I have occasionaly been irritated by the conduct of a cyclist. From time to time. I have no particular vendetta against cyclists as a class of people. I actually own a pretty damn nice bike which I love to ride. I'm not going to say I'm a hardcore cyclist or anything, but I have plenty of personal experience as a city roadway user from the perspective of a cyclist as well as a driver. I have yelled at jerkwad drivers from my bike before.

So occasionally, I get into a debate over the conduct of cyclists on the road. The crux of the matter is that bicycles are smaller and more nimble than cars. As a result, they are capable of going places cars cannot. At the same time, they cannot go as fast as cars can. They are also more vulnerable.

So you have, on the one hand, some drivers who get very irritated when they have to drive 15 MPH until they can safely pass a cyclist ahead of them, or when a bicycle passes a line of cars at a 4-way stop sign, and/or goes out of turn. Then, on the other hand, you have cyclists who get very irritated when drivers decide to pass them without waiting until it's safe, or make a right turn without ensuring that there's not a bicycle next to them.

These are just a few of the issues that relate to the complexities of integrating two very different types of vehicle traffic into a single roadway. Obviously, some adjustment is required on the part of all parties to make this a happy, joyous union that will last a lifetime, produce many lovely children, and involve annual cookouts.

The central point of my problem with the way bicyclists use the roadways is that they run red lights. Often. Anyone who says otherwise is quite simply, living in an Egyptian river. You can try to convice yourself that it is only a handful of scofflaw cyclists who pull up to a red light and breeze through after glancing both ways, but you know you are lying to yourself.

Now, once you dismiss those stoic, deluded souls who absolutely insist that this never happens (despite my seeing ten out of ten people in a row do it on my one outing with a "video camera"), we get to the actual debate. The argument that is worth having. There are a few recurring points that cyclists make in this debate that bear discussion.

Reasons it's OK for cyclists to run red lights

  • Cars break laws all the time
  • I am only endangering myself
  • Cars run stop signs
  • Cars speed
  • Cars hate bikes
  • Cars kill
  • Cars break laws too
  • Cars suck
I think it's pretty obvious why these are bad reasons to excuse red-light running for bikes. But for others, it seems, this is not so obvious. So to help clear up the mystery surrounding why it might not be OK for cyclists to run red lights, even though cars speed, I have created a visual aid. Let's look at it without further ado!

Cars speed, run stop signs, generally break traffic laws on a regular basis.

This is true. Both cars and bicycles break traffic laws on a regular basis. However, there is one thing that cars do not do on a regular basis. And this is run red lights.

Why is this important? Because the essence of this long, happy marriage of cars and cyclists in the road is predictability. In a real marriage, if one member of a nice, suburban yuppie couple came home from their job at Ernst & Young with a purple mohawk, or became a Scientologist, or decided to start smoking crack, there would undoubtedly be a major problem. Running a red light is a violation of those wedding vows, and the basic trust that all road users put in each other. Speeding, on the other hand, is more like your husband eating too many cheeseburgers and being a few pounds overweight. Ideally nobody would do it, but it's not going to cause any fights. Or kill you as quickly as smoking crack.

So when people drive in a manner that is predictable, accidents rarely happen, and the marriage works. Accidents are a result of someone doing something that is not expected. This includes: suddenly changing lanes, stopping suddenly, cutting you off, or generally being where you are not supposed to be. And for the Ernst & Young guy, that includes tattoo parlors and whorehouses.

The difference between red-light running and speeding is that one of them results in you being where you are absolutely not supposed to be, and one of them does not.

Driving in roadways with two (or more) lanes and cars driving at varying speeds is normal. We learn to do this in driving school. We learn to look in our side and rearview mirrors before changing lanes to ensure nobody's coming up on us. It's part of life. When someone is exceeding the speed limit by 5 or 10 MPH, the dynamics of the overall situation do not change. The same techniques you use to drive safely every day still work fine, even if there are people speeding.

But this is not true of red light running. Quite simply, nobody should be crossing in front of you when you have a green light. Even if there's enough space for someone to cross, you do not expect them to be there. A driver may react suddenly because of this.

I'm only endangering myself.

Several points.

1. If you do something that causes others to react, you can easily cause collateral damage.

2. A motorcycle, scooter, segway or small car could reasonably make the same argument.

3. Suicide is illegal too.

So what?

Frankly, I am amazed that this bears explanation. I am amazed that cyclists would continue to assert that running red lights is just fine for them (but not for cars.)

The reality is quite simple.

Bicycles run red lights because they can get away with it. They are a tiny minority of road users. They are not licensed, and most cops wouldn't bother to stop them.

If 1 out of 100 cars runs a red light, after looking both ways, would it cause a disaster? Absolutely not. That is why, right now, cyclists running red lights is not disastrous.

But what if every other vehicle was a bicycle? Would it be OK for them to run red lights as often as they do now? What if every other car ran a red light? Would that be OK? Everyone speeds a little bit and it rarely results in accidents. But if everyone ran red lights, even a little bit, the system would crumble.

At the end of the day, cyclists break every single traffic law that they are capable of breaking. Most don't stop for red lights. They don't signal. They don't stop for stop signs. They are frequently in a place where they should not be in the roadway.

The only law they do not break on a regular basis is speeding - but that's only beacause they physically can't do it. If a typical cyclist could ride 45 MPH on 16th Street, can anyone seriously deny that they wouldn't?

So yeah, cars aren't exactly the Mother Theresas of the road as far as adhering to the lettter of the law. But the vast majority of drivers act in a reasonably predictable manner. They wait their turn at 4-way stop signs. They stay on their side of the road. They don't go the wrong way down 1-way streets. And they stop at red lights.

Pointing out that cars don't adhere to the letter of some traffic laws does not justify routinely ignoring others. The system works because most road users act in a predictable manner. A lot of cylists do not. If their numbers were as great as cars and they acted the same way, the system would not work.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Confessions Of A Traffic Tattletale

Driving home from work at lunchtime today, which has become a daily ritual because of the new puppy, I was waiting at a light on 16th Street southbound. I was stunned when a truck ahead of me proceeded right through the red light.

As much as I think that DC is full of bad drivers, this is something you rarely see from an automobile. Cyclists? They run red lights all the time. And cars certainly break all manner of other traffic laws routinely. Frankly, I am surprised when I see a turn signal. I feel like pulling over and shaking the hand of any driver who actually signals before making a turn, to thank them for the selfess, rare act of compliance with the law that they have taken upon themselves.

But I honestly can't remember the last time I saw a car just drive right through a red light in broad daylight with lots of other cars around.

The light changed shortly after he ran it, but the truck soon disappeared in the distance. I am not going to lie and say I never exceed the speed limit on 16th Street. The prevailing speed of traffic is often over 40 MPH. But this guy must have easily hit 70.

I caught up to him again as he hit some traffic and watched as he weaved around a couple cars and ran right through the next red light.

At this point, he was a menace.

I thought briefly about the move I was about to make, and did it.

I invited the vampire into my own home.

I called the police to rat out a driver.

Like most people, I speed sometimes. I don't come to a complete stop at every single stop sign. But I am always in control and I always try to drive in a manner that is reasonable given the circumstances: traffic, road conditions, weather, foot traffic.

But this guy was either loony tunes or on his way back from a bank robbery. And goddamit, your Marlyand-plated ass is not going to get away with driving like a complete jackass in my city.

I told the cops what was going on and gave them the truck's description and licence plate number. I have no idea what happened next. But on my way back to work an hour later, there was a "speed limit enforcement wall" heading south on 16th Street. That is, two cops, driving side by side, on 16th Street, which would effectively prevent anyone from driving over 30.

I have no idea if my call somehow resulted in this, or if the crazy ass truck got picked up. And despite the fact that generally, cop cars babysitting traffic like this is pretty annoying, it made me feel like I got a response from the police. I didn't stop a mugging or a house break-in, but maybe I made 16th Street safer for one day.

I was fully expecting to be pulled over for talking on my cell phone while driving.

... and the "pre-teens" are here.

That's our new word for the era. Yes, it's almost as bad as the "naughties," but I like it a little better than the "tweens." It's only for three years, or even less, if the world ends in 2012 as expected, so deal with it.

It's now 13 days into the pre-teens, and so far, 2010 reminds me very little of the sequel to "2001: A Space Odyssey," and very much of riding in the back of a pickup truck in Alaska. The thermometer has barely nudged above 30 since the new year. As I've become accustomed to a week of 60 or 70 degree weather in the middle of winter every year in DC, this is quite disturbing.

In the last thirteen days, some important things have taken place.

DC's 5 cent bag tax has taken effect. This has caused a few nut jobs to swear they will drive 3,000 miles through rebel-controlled Nicaragua in their hummer armed with nothing but a fly-swatter to obtain mangoes before they will pay one red cent in tax for a bag. Personally, I think that tax is stupid and won't ultimately make much difference in terms of trash and environmental harm, but at the same time I really doubt it's going to seriously affect business. That guy notwithstanding.

I can't believe Andrew couldn't
even score with this Herpes Triangle
skank. He is definitely gay.
The Real World DC hits the airwaves. While this show has about as much in common with the real world as elephants do with jellyfish, the DC setting, even if narrowly focused on Dupont Circle and Georgetown, makes it kind of entertaining. I've never been a huge fan of reality shows. Actually, that's an understatement. I loathe them with a passion. Yet in the last week I've watched both RWDC and the American Idol tryouts. I expect I'll be watching Teen Mom and Hoarders soon. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, I guess.

Sarah Palin gets a gig on Fox News! In a bid to improve their credibility, Fox has retained Sarah Palin in a mushy kind of contract to appear as a political commentator. In her first public appearance since this announcement, we get a taste of what's to come as Bill O'Reilly asked her if she'd seen the lastest "60 Minutes" in which former McCain strategist talked about her shenanigans on the campaign trail. Palin's response?
"Yes, that surprised me," Palin said tonight. "I hadn't seen the '60 Minutes" thing.' I had been warned, you know, don't watch. It's a bunch of B.S. from [Steve] Schmidt and from some of those."
We've got a lot to look forward to, folks. The only question is, will The Daily Show need to be extended to a full hour to allow for enough time to fully mock Palin's performances?

Petunias and Potatoes are "murderous meat-eaters." Add spuds to the list of things that PETA will be boycotting, as it has been demonstrated that these nefarious tubers are carniverous. I am not kidding. They eat flies.

That last one actually happened in December 2009. But it was important enough that I felt everyone should know.