Plastic Bag Ban Essay – response to pp 203-205 in the College Board’s The Official SAT Study Guide
The chapter from the Study Guide can be found at this link:
I hope this helps you get an idea of what sort of response you should give to SAT essay questions. Note that while you're not supposed to make the essay a statement of your opinion on the topic of the passage, you can (and should) point out counter-arguments a reader may think of while reading it, and comment on whether or not the essay addresses them. Here's my essay response to the prompt.
Adam B. Summers, in his San Diego Union-Tribune editorial “Bag Ban Bad for Freedom and the Environment,” uses apt and powerful language choice, logic, examples, humor, statistical evidence, arguments from authority, examples from everyday life and common sense, and appeals to emotion to make his point, namely that a ban on single-use plastic or paper bags by certain large retail stores in California would actually harm the environment, in addition to obviously and unnecessarily infringing on the general public’s freedom.
In the first paragraph of the editorial excerpt, Summers creates an image of government intrusion on personal freedom bordering on a police state or “nanny state,” by stating “Not content to tell us how much our toilets can flush or what type of light bulb we can use to brighten our homes, some politicians and environmentalists are now focused on deciding for us what kind of container we can use to carry our groceries.” Summers’ choice of words makes these issues seem trivial, and the people telling the public how to handle these matter seem like meddlesome busybodies, if not outright bullies. It encourages the reader to ask “Why should ANYONE care how much water I use to flush my toilet, what light bulbs I use, or what kind of bags I use at the grocery store. I haven’t heard people poke their nose into my personal choices since I was in middle school! These people can go jump in a lake if they don’t like my choices – I don’t tell THEM what to do!”
In the second paragraph, while mentioning the proposed bill’s failure, but its California Assembly sponsors intention to re-introduce the bill, Summers writes “[E]xpect this bill to be recycled rather than trashed,” comparing a bill to trash that can be either recycled or put in a landfill as non-recyclable waste, which has a mildly humorous effect.
In the third paragraph, Summers states that “public debate over plastic bag bans often devolve into please to save the planet ore preserve marine life … a little reason and perspective is in order,” which characterizes plastic bag ban proponents as being overly emotional to the point of irrationality. Ironically, that argument is itself an appeal to emotion, essentially implying that people who want to ban plastic bags are irrational teenage neo-hippie tree huggers.
In the fourth paragraph, Summers cites to an Environmental Protection Agency study that shows that plastic wraps, bags, and sacks are only about 1.6% of all waste in U.S. landfills, and HDPE plastic bags, the type usually used as grocery bags, are only 0.3% of that total. This use of statistics makes the entire grocery bag issue seem trivial, but ignores the question as to why consumers and retailers should not reduce that figure to 0.0% if it is possible. However, Summers answers that question further on in his editorial.
In the fifth paragraph, the author uses statistics to support his claim that plastic bags are actually better for the environment than plastic bags, citing statistics that show plastic bags take much less energy and water to produce. He also notes that plastic bags take less energy to transport than paper bags, since plastic smaller and take up less space. He fails to cite the source of those statistics, or at least the citation is not included in the excerpt provided, which weakens his argument slightly, but most readers will give him the “benefit of the doubt” and assume Summers has a reliable source, which is not a good idea (people frequently lie or distort the truth in newspaper editorials).
In the sixth paragraph, the author claims that reusable plastic bags also have a larger footprint than single-use plastic bags and cites to a study by two law professors (one from University of Pennsylvania and the other from George Mason University) that shows a spike in emergency room admissions because of San Francisco’s plastic bag ban. Summers cites that law professors’ study as stating the emergency room admissions were caused by bacterial food contamination, which was the result of the placement of food into bags that had been reused without proper cleaning. In other words, according to the author, residue from previous food allowed bacteria to grow, and the bacteria infested new food placed in the bags, causing the people eating the food to become sick. This is the use of statistics from what appear to be reliable sources, also an argument from authority (medical sources and professors from prestigious law school tend to be believed, and people who argue against those sources face obvious responses similar to “You’re not a doctor – how can you argue against what doctors tell us?”). Of course, this is also a powerful appeal to emotion – it basically says “Reusing plastic bags will make you SICK!”
Summers also fails to cite any source to support his statement that reusable bags have a larger carbon footprint than plastic bags, and fails to note if the larger carbon footprint is only for manufacture and transport, or for the entire life of the bag. That is, if a cloth bag can be reused 50 times, then the manufacturing and transport of 50 plastic bags would have to be compared to the manufacturing and transport of one cloth bag, with some allowance made for the fact that the cloth bag would have to be transported back from home to store, slightly increasing the cloth bag’s footprint. The reader who notices this problem is likely to assume his reason for failing to address this issue is that reusable bags (cloth, plastic, etc.) actually have a smaller carbon footprint and/or take up less landfill space once all factors are considered, and Summers is purposely “glossing over” this point. This seriously weakens Summers’ argument to those who notice that point, as well as the probability of compostable natural-fiber bags being much better for the environment than plastic (e.g., most people know cotton decomposes naturally and much more quickly than plastic).
The seventh paragraph is Summers’ citation to common sense and common, every day occurrences, as well as further statistics to back that argument. He points out that people reuse “single use” plastic bags as trash liners, holders for wet objects, and so on, and that a plastic bag tax in Ireland simply led to a 77% increase in plastic trash bag sales (presumably to replace the “free” trash can liners people previously obtained when grocery shopping). This is a powerful argument against a plastic bag ban, since it supports the idea that people will simply BUY plastic bags, resulting in practically no net environmental benefit.
The eighth paragraph is Summers’ appeal to economic self-interest. He cites that roughly 2,000 Californians are employed in the product of the bags to be banned, and that while other bags could be made that would comply with the proposed law, such measures would require “taxpayers … to pony up for the added bureaucracy.” Certainly, the prospect of increased unemployment and increased taxes creates a strong negative emotional response in most readers – “You mean, I could lose my job and pay more taxes when I find another one if this law passes? NO THANKS!” However, Summers completely fails to cite any source for his assertion that reformulated plastic bags would require any more bureaucracy than already exists. Does any government agency currently monitor the composition of plastic bags? We can’t tell from reading this editorial. If such an agency exists, probably NO new agency would need to be created.
The ninth and last paragraph is a reiteration of Summers’ argument that although environmentalists are free to encourage us to use fewer plastic bags, government should not impinge on our freedom to use plastic bags. He again uses humor “Notwithstanding the aforementioned reasons that plastic bags are not, in fact, evil incarnate…”, exaggerating the positions of environmentalists to support his claim that people who wish to ban single-use plastic shopping bags are overly emotional and irrational, making melodramatic statements while ignoring the actual facts that apply to the matter at hand.
Despite a carefully-hidden flaw in his argument, Adam Summers’ use of humor, statistics, the results of studies by authoritative sources, appeals to the reader’s everyday experience, common sense, and finally to emotion, all create an effective and powerful argument against a statewide ban on single-use shopping bags in California.
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Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
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