Bagging the bags?

Everything we buy, or get delivered in NYC comes in plastic bags.

Almost everything we buy or get delivered in NYC comes in plastic bags.

New York City residents use more than 5 billion plastic bags every year. That’s over 14 million bags we throw away every day, or two for every New Yorker.

It’s nearly impossible to arrive home after a shopping trip in NYC without plastic bags. Except in more progressive chains such as Whole Foods and local eco-friendly stores, reusable shopping bags are not part of the New York image. Even if you walk into a store with a reusable tote, many cashiers will — by force of habit — still bag what you bought.

A proposed fee (some say a tax) on bags could change that. It divides the city council.

1000 Years: best case scenario
Plastic bags take up to 1000 years to decompose. Unfortunately, nothing completely degrades in modern landfills as there is insufficient water, light, oxygen and other elements necessary to complete the process. An industry-sponsored article at does not address precisely how long it would take for plastic bags to degrade, but agrees that most landfills are not designed for biodegradability.
(Sources: Sierra Club, Progressive Bag Alliance, Slate)

NYC’s habit consumes no less than 5.2 billion plastic bags every year. Most of them find their way into the waste system in a matter of days. Some have a short second life as collectors of household waste, but our landfills are still their destination. It takes more than 1000 years for a plastic bag to decompose in the most optimal circumstances (which are never met in a landfill). According to the NYC government, almost 3% of the city’s residential waste is plastic bags. That figure doesn’t include bags that never make it to landfills, instead ending up in the rivers, trees and streets.

Eventually, the plastic that escapes its trip to the landfill may end up in the seas, impacting oceanic wildlife.  Hundreds of thousands of marine animals die every year after eating plastic bags they mistake for food. For example, sea turtles see them as jellyfish and ingest them.

This albatros died with his stomach filled with plastic. (image: Chris Jordan)

This albatross died with his stomach filled with plastic. (image: Chris Jordan)

Albatrosses are another species affected by this issue: They catch fish, squid and other seafood by skimming the surface of the water with their beak. Along the way, they accidentally pick up floating plastic, which they then feed to their chicks. Adults can regurgitate a certain amount of plastic they’ve swallowed, but chicks cannot, so it fills up their stomachs.

The ecological impact inspired the NYC council to propose a bill to collect 10 cents for every bag used. Similar legislation in other locations has been effective. When Washington, D.C., collected a 5-cent fee on plastic bags, use dropped by 60%. In 2007, some European supermarkets decided to stop giving away bags for free. Within weeks, people shifted toward reusable containers. When I moved here from Europe, I had to adjust, as we were used to bringing our own bags or loading groceries into backpacks and bike baskets. So it turns out that when incentivized, consumers are ready to make the switch. If Rwanda, recovering from the worst genocide in recent history,  is capable of banning plastic bags to creating a cleaner country, there can be no doubt that a city like New York can address this issue.

Reduce_Recycle_ReuseBecause paper bags are more expensive for shop owners, the government would like to avoid a massive consumer trade-in of plastic for paper, so the proposed fee will apply to paper bags as well. Bringing your own bag will be the only way to avoid the fee. This approach brings the global principle of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle to New York. Under this principle, reducing waste is preferable to recycling or reusing.

This is a big step forward, because recycling is not as good for nature as avoiding pollution altogether. Recycling uses energy to create a product that in most cases is inferior to the original one. So reusing a plastic grocery bag as an at-home trash bag, or recycling it into a plastic bottle, has less impact than switching to a cloth bag that can be used 100 times.

Recycling plastic bags?
The cost to process and recycle 1 ton of plastic bags is about $4000. The resulting product has a value on the commodities market of no more than $32 per ton, bringing the economic result of the recycling to a loss per ton of $3968. Therefore, most bags collected are not recycled, but shipped to India or China where they are dumped.
(Sources: Sierra Club, Huffington Post, Clean Air Council)

That is why an existing NYC law that forces shops to take back plastic bags is not contributing much to a better environment. In addition, almost no bags make it back to the store this way.

The new law would make an exception for people who pay with food stamps and for restaurants delivering take-out food, to avoid disproportionate impact on people who have the smallest incomes and on businesses with few alternatives. The issue divides even those who believe banning plastic bags is a good thing. Some claim the proposed law is an unequal tax that will hit those in lower income brackets harder — not the image this city government wants to project, since it was elected on the theme of inequality.

I discussed this matter with Pamela Peeters, Environmental Economist in NYC and author of Urban Ecology and Eco Hero.  Pamela is also the organizer of NYC Sustainability Week. Asked for a reaction on why City Councilman James Vacca is calling this “A tax in sheep’s clothing“, she said:

“I think it is a great idea for many reasons, and both the environment and the local economy/community are benefitting.

“One example that speaks for itself: getting [these] bags from landfills will reduce city expenses [by] the amount of $10 million USD.”

We discussed how the community can help make this bill easier to bring in front of the community:

“Why not invite the local fashion scene to make more fun reusable bags? I made some with my assistants for the fashion event during my first Sustainability Week NYC, and the results were presented after the ethical and fair-trade fashion runway. The idea was embraced by the audience, who also liked the fact that marine life as well as birds will be spared from digesting an item that does not belong in our environment to begin with. You do the math!”

The debate in this city isn’t over, so be sure I’ll come back to this issue when things evolve here.

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