Jan 5 - Bag Conundrum: Known Choking Hazard, Yet Touted as Safety Device by Industry Lawyer

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Take a close look at your plastic bag from your local takeout restaurant and you’ll see in fine print at the bottom:

"Warning: To avoid the danger of suffocation, keep this plastic bag away from babies and children."

According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, 25 children die from bag-related suffocations every year.

And yet, plastic bag ban opponents have recently touted the protection of plastic bags. In a complaint filed against the Santa Cruz County’s bag ordinance, which bans restaurants from distributing plastic bags, the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition (STPBC) lawyer writes,

"Children are entitled to extra protection from potential physical injury or distress as a result of contact with hot burning or scalding liquids."

Last September, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors approved a single-use bag ordinance that banned plastic bags at all stores and restaurants. With this move, the County effectively showed its environmental leadership and passed the strongest ordinance to date. However, one month later the STPBC filed a complaint.

Among some of the Coalition’s highly questionable claims: that the plastic bag is a safety device. The STPBC attached several images to the complaint, where a woman was scalded by McDonald’s coffee after removing the coffee cup lid in the car. She sued the company and won. In an earlier letter, STPBC had also written,

"Take-out bags are often opened in cars, including moving cars, so proper packaging is essential. One can imagine the impact on a young child of hot liquid, hot oil, or hot grease seeping or spilling from a paper bag in a car."

The Coalition concluded in the complaint that:

"If the paper cup in the Hot Coffee case had been in a plastic bag…she would not have suffered any injuries, no matter how hot the coffee. A plastic bag would have completely contained the spill. For this reason, Chinese food is often placed in cardboard containers which are placed in plastic carryout bags that are tied at the top to prevent hot juices from spilling and causing burns."

According to some media reports, the County may amend their ordinance to avoid further litigation. But after looking at the arguments in the STPBC complaint, we hope they aren’t seriously considering making major concessions.

If restaurants use safe, secure, and leakproof containers to hold their hot food—as they should (STPBC got something right when they discussed a restaurant owner’s liability issues)—the purpose of a plastic bag is merely to prevent minor spills and leaks, and not about protecting customers from major burns.