How New York dropped the ball on plastic bags

A plastic-bag ban ought to be a no-brainer for the city. So why hasn’t it happened?

How New York dropped the ball on plastic bags

A plastic-bag ban ought to be a no-brainer for the city. So why hasn’t it happened?

Here is the distillation of America’s addiction to plastic bags in nutshell: I was working the register at at Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn a few years ago when a customer came up with a handful of 99-cent reusable bags. She was buying about ten of them for gifts; when I finished ringing her up, I put nine of the bags neatly inside the tenth and handed them to her. She looked at me like I was trying to give her five pounds of loose egg yolks to carry.

No, I need a bag, she said.

But you have a bag, I said. Ten, actually.

But I need a bag for the bags, she insisted. I pushed back as far as friendly Trader Joe’s customer service would allow but then relented, putting her ten reusable bags in a plastic bag.

Working at a grocery store revealed to me just how deep single-use bag addiction runs. People double- and triple-bag small items, they say they’ll remember their reusable bags “next time” but never do, they ask for a handful of extra plastic bags to cover up their grocery bag so no one spies on their stuff on the bus (a lot of people are paranoid about this, apparently). They put their groceries in a plastic bag only to put that bag inside a backpack, which, it turns out, was a bag all along.

New York was extremely late to the trend of banning plastic bags, especially for a city that likes to think of itself as progressive and green.

New York City last year was poised to tackle the problem of plastic bags — the sewer clogging, flood-causing, tree-strangling, ubiquitous avatars of modern waste — by enacting a five-cent fee for each bag used. The goal of that fee was to serve as a simple nudge, a mental roadblock between customer and thoughtless bag-usage. The average use lifespan of a plastic bag is all of about 12 minutes. Then that bag essentially exists forever: it can take 500 to 1,000 years to break down.

Similar fees, or outright plastic-bag bans, have been enacted in other cities, states and countries around the world. San Francisco became the first city in the country to put the kibosh on plastic bags in 2007; Hawaii became the first state to ban them in 2012. As of last March, there are bans in nearly 100 cities, towns, and municipalities and 30 others have put in place fees.

New York was extremely late the trend, especially for a city that likes to think of itself as progressive and green. But the city is being held hostage by the state on the matter, and it became clear last week that the situation will not resolve itself anytime soon.

In January of last year, about a month before the fee was set to take effect, the Republican-controlled state Senate passed legislation to block it, which was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The city had tried to skirt state oversight by making the five cents a fee, not a tax, with the money going back to store owners. But lawmakers parrotted language from the plastic bag lobby — yes, that’s a thing, with groups like the American Chemistry Council and American Progressive Bag Alliance dipping into their large coffers to fight anti-bag laws nationwide — saying the fee would be a tax on poor people and was government overreach.

Single-use bags account for 1,700 tons of garbage each week in New York City.

Cuomo, who last year said New York state would lead on climate change and environmental protection in the face of Trumpism, commissioned a task force to find a comprehensive solution. The task force's report came out earlier this month and offers up eight solutions, ranging from doing nothing to enacting an outright ban. This gives Cuomo room not to take a firm stance, activists say.

“It really shows a lack of leadership from the governor on the issue,” Jennie Romer, a lawyer and anti-bag advocate who worked pro bono on the City Council legislation, told The Outline. “It’s frustrating, we’re kind of back to the drawing table.”

It’s hard to read even the first sentence of the task force report and see any other solution but a complete ban on plastic bags and a full-tilt effort to make reusable bags the default option. “Throughout New York State, plastic bags have become a ubiquitous sight on the landscape. They can be seen stuck in trees, as litter in our neighborhoods, floating in our waterways and as a general aesthetic eyesore of our environment,” it reads. “Single-use plastic bags are a detriment to the health of communities and the environment alike.”

In the city alone, single-use bags account for 1,700 tons of garbage each week — which works out to 91,000 tons of plastic and paper carry-out bags each year — and costs the city $12.5 million to dispose of, according to the report. Recycling them is extremely difficult, and most people don’t do it anyway — only 12 percent of bags are recovered for recycling nationwide, according to the report. Paper bags are not any better. They may not get tangled in trees, but they burn the earth getting to you: the water usage and fuel needed to transport heavy reams of paper means they actually have a greater carbon footprint than plastic bags.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to take even more aggressive action on bags, but the city can’t do anything without the state’s approval now. The city this month made a big show of divesting from fossil fuel companies. Attacking plastic bag usage would certainly fit in with that goal: the national consumption of plastic bags uses up 12 million barrels of oil each year, according to the report.

“The mayor has made his position clear,” Seth Stein, a de Blasio spokesperson, told me. “He supports a full ban on plastic bags, which he believes is the most equitable and environmentally friendly solution.” Cuomo’s office did not return a request for comment. In an extra slap to the city, the state’s action last year only blocked New York City from enacting its own bag fees; other towns are exempt and have been putting their own fees in place. The issue of plastic bags isn’t really just about bags — it is the apotheosis of the throw-away mindset that is strangling our planet and draining resources, the mindless acceptance of garbage that is filling the oceans with plastic, leading to the most depressing Blue Planet episode of all time.

“I see it as an icon of waste overall,” Romer said. “It’s one thing we can reduce really easily. We see that all over the world and country that just a small fee component makes a difference . If we can’t do this, then how far can we go?” Opponents of bag fees or bans often complain about mundane convenience, that they shop after work and can’t bring a reusable bag with them all the time, or claim they need the bags to pick up dog or cat waste (even though it shouldn’t be the burden of society to pay for a receptacle for your pet’s waste).

The issue of plastic bags isn’t really just about bags — it is the apotheosis of the throw-away mindset that is strangling our planet and draining resources.

The most egregious argument is that charging a bag fee is a tax on the poor. This is the line pushed by the bag industry and Republican lawmakers.

"This fee is regressive, and burns the communities it's trying to help," Steven Matteo, the City Council's Republican minority leader told Gothamist in 2016. He unhelpfully suggested his constituents would drive from Staten Island to New Jersey to buy groceries in protest. This line of thinking is not only harshly condescending to lower-income people, it’s demonstrably false.

“Just because someone’s poor doesn’t mean they don’t have environmental concerns,” said Greg Silverman, executive director of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger food pantry in Manhattan. The pantry, one of the largest in the city, serving 10,000 families a year, does not provide bags, expecting every customer to bring their own. Many of the city’s pantries have the same policy. “I don’t think it’s going to dissuade people from coming here if we don’t have the bags,” he said. (Concern for the finances of poorer people is also not, for the record, how state lawmakers usually set public policy. If that were true, there would be discounted Metrocards for low-income residents.)

When I worked at Trader Joe’s, I developed a trick to push an anti-bag waste agenda: I asked people if they brought a bag today, or if they needed one of ours. It clicked a switch in people’s minds. Some actually responded that they didn’t know they could bring their own bags.

That’s how deep bag addiction runs; people look at their phones as they’re being run up and never question what the rest of the this bag’s 1,000 year lifespan will look like.

The bag fee would go a long way to changing that mindset, because you just need to force people to think about it for a second. An outright ban on any single use bag — paper or plastic — is what is really needed. But New York is not letting either happen.

Tim Donnelly is a freelance journalist.