The other day my family stopped for frozen yogurt in Palo Alto. Ice cream in Silicon Valley is frowned upon these days, even though froyo tends to taste more like soap than a scoop of butter pecan. Waiting to pay, I watched a young man wearing a Vampire Weekend T-shirt cut the line, go to the counter, and ask whether he should put his garbage in the compost, recycle or landfill container. "Well, any leftover toppings go into compost. The spoon and cup can be recycled. But the plastic top and bag, unfortunately, need to go to landfill," said the employee. There was a line at the trash, each a victim, it seemed, of a disorder: eco-OCD.
Not me. I left my empty cup on a table.
I'm unqualified for today's sanitation edicts. Which is why living in California has become nearly impossible.
So far, 88 cities and counties in Golden State have banned plastic bags. Most stores are now required by law to charge 10 cents for a paper bag, which so annoyed an elderly man in San Carlos this summer that he took a swing at the cashier. Maybe he was onto something.
Many shoppers have resorted to reusable bags—never mind that a 2011 study by the University of Arizona found E. coli bacteria in 8% of reusable bags, and lots of salmonella too. Perhaps California should pass ordinances requiring bag-washing; a survey of people who shop with reusable bags found that only 3% ever do. Or maybe just give us our plastic bags back.
The nanny mandates just keep coming. As of October, Palo Alto requires all new homes to be wired for an electric-car charging station, even if you drive a '69 Mustang. And thanks to the ominous-sounding Title 24, half of the lighting in new kitchens is required to be "high efficacy luminaires," which usually means glaring fluorescents. These are hard-wired, since the state doesn't trust its citizens not to swap them out with old-school bulbs.
But in California, as in so many other places, the nannyish mentality extends well beyond government, seeming to reach into life's every cranny. Want a simple cup of coffee? Hard to find one that doesn't come without a lecture about its being "fair trade"—as if all other coffee were obtained at gunpoint. My pound bag of Starbucks SBUX -1.16% beans, for which I clearly overpaid, is labeled "Ethically Sourcing." That's not even good English, but I don't want to be accused of being unscrupulous in how I acquire my morning buzz.
Once caffeinated, I hit the streets with my dog. To be nice, I stupidly ask people I run into what kind of dog they have. The smugly self-satisfied answer 98% of the time: "rescue dog." I think that's French for mutt—and doesn't answer the question. When someone asks me what kind of dog I have, I just say "show dog." Shortens the conversation.
Then it's off for some fruits and nuts. I don't have the drab clothing or strappy footwear that seems to be the farmers-market dress code. But when I do go, I find myself entranced by the variety of kale. On one recent visit, I was told by a post-hippie vendor with that his lacinato kale could be spun, minced and fried—not to mention that it had been approved by the CCOF: California Certified Organic Farmers.
Under the next umbrella was a vendor selling similar rabbit food. I listened as a woman asked if the farmer used pesticides. "No, we use 100% organic farming techniques," he replied. Then why, she asked, didn't he display usual CCOF sign and other bureaucratic testimonials? "Because it's not worth it," he said. "Between certification and inspections, I'm easily out a couple of grand that I just can't afford as a small business." The woman paused, then walked away. I saw her fill her reusable grocery satchels at a Real Organic stand. The vendor rolled his eyes.
Continuing my stroll, I sidestepped the organic, vegan, gluten-free Soy Beanery and came upon a food truck with the longest line in the market. It was selling $13 air-chilled, free-range rotisserie chickens. The grease from the chickens was dripping onto a bed of roasted potatoes.
There was no one to tell me I couldn't indulge. I bought a chicken and some greasy potatoes. With no reusable bags, I nearly ate them on the spot.