Plastic bags are, for many, a way of life, a convenience taken for granted. A handy container for groceries, pharmacy goods, or that bottle of wine at the end of a long workday.
But the bags are not without their detractors. In fact, many New Yorkers would like to do away with them altogether.
A number of organizations — including a few from our own backyard — have called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers to address what they’re calling a “plastic bag crisis,” and they want to follow California’s lead in banning the thin plastic bags commonly found at supermarkets and bodegas.
“It’s clear that we need to address the real environmental concerns caused by the proliferation of plastic bags, and a ban is one of the options we’re reviewing,” Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi told news outlets a day after Mayor Bill de Blasio called for an all-out ban on plastic bags in the city.
The mayor is finding support locally from Laura Spalter, chair of Community Board 8’s environment and sanitation committee, who says plastic bags have a costly and negative impact on the state’s natural resources.
CB8 adopted a resolution last November from Spalter’s committee urging city and state lawmakers to “eliminate plastic bags to the maximum extent possible,” she said. That call to action made its way to CB8’s various councilmen like Andrew Cohen, Fernando Cabrera and Ydanis Rodriguez. And it was forwarded to the governor himself.
But city leaders haven’t ignored the plastic bag issue. They’ve just had efforts to address it blocked by the state.
The city council narrowly passed a bill in 2016 that would levy a five-cent fee on plastic bags. Yet Cuomo signed legislation last year overturning that ordinance.
The governor did, however, convene a task force charged with recommending a statewide solution a year ago, saying the “costly and negative impact of plastic bags on New York’s natural resources is a statewide issue that demands a statewide solution.”
When the task force completed its work last January, it provided a detailed rundown of problems involving the environmental impact of plastic bags, but it failed to offer a definitive fix, said Eric Wood, project coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group, which has fought for prohibitions on plastic bags.
An estimated 23 billion plastic bags are used and disposed of annually, according to the state’s environmental conservation department — and that’s just in New York. It all contributes to a pernicious downward spiral.
“That adds to the landfill, and then there’s littering,” Spalter said. “After a rainstorm, the plastic bags are flushed down into the sewer system, and those bags go into the waterways. This causes damage to the fish, and nothing degrades. So it is a big problem.”
As a retired teacher, Spalter would like to see amped up education and outreach, so that more people think twice before tossing an empty plastic bag on the sidewalk. But as for an overall solution? “It’s very complicated,” Spalter said.
“If people could be encouraged to use cloth bags — or maybe if there were some kind of recycling of plastic bags — the state is looking at this,” Spalter said.
State Sen. Jeff Klein doesn’t believe it to be so complicated.
“Banning single-use plastic bags is the common-sense approach to alleviate the waste sent to landfills every day,” Klein wrote in a letter to CB8 chair Rosemary Ginty last December. “It is important to note that because single-use plastic bags are either non-recyclable or difficult and costly to recycle, any other remedy to single-use plastic bag waste is inefficient.”
Meanwhile, in Albany where Klein works, legislation is on the table.
State Sens. Liz Krueger and Brad Holyman announced the introduction of S7760, which would outright ban plastic carryout bags and levy a 10-cent fee on all other carryout bags as a way to encourage reusable alternatives. Stores would keep 20 percent of revenue from the fee to cover costs, while the rest would go to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.
Customers receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children would be exempt.
Jennifer Scarlott, who coordinates Bronx Climate Justice North, says the plastic bag issue is connected to a much bigger problem.
“The U.S. uses 12 million barrels of oil each year to create plastic bags,” Scarlott said. “So in addition to it being a litter problem — affecting wildlife, getting into the food stream, affecting the food that humans eat — it is a climate change issue, because plastic bags require petroleum to make them and to ship them everywhere.”
Moreover, Scarlott added, convenience shouldn’t be a major issue for urban folks who rely on the bags.
“It’s a very simple thing to stuff a reusable bag into the bag, or your briefcase, that you carry every day,” Scarlott said. “Reusable bags can take up a tiny amount of space, smaller than your wallet, and provide you with two or three bags to carry groceries home after your workday, or supplies that your kids need.
“Convenience is nice, but the destruction of the planet is probably even more important.