Could NYC Ban Disposable Bags?

Photo by GRACELINKS on flickr

One of the advantages of living in New York City is that you can get nearly anything you need at almost any hour.  Greasing the gears of that spur-of-the-moment consumption is the plastic bag.  No need to think ahead about how to get groceries, the latest iPhone or a 22-ounce Sapporo safely home…here, just put it in this bag.

The truth is, plastic bags make shopping easy, a concept that retailers naturally love.  But our love affair with disposable bags is catching up with us.

Grocery baggers across the United States have been asking customers “Paper or plastic?” since oil giant Mobil overturned a Swedish engineer’s patent for the natural gas and oil-derived polyethylene bag in the late 1970’s.  Most Americans have responded “plastic” ever since, and we now use an estimated 102 billion of the single-use bags per year.

Although they are designed to be used just once, plastic bags can last for up to 1,000 years when they're thrown in the trash and buried in a landfill.  Others can wreak havoc on recycling centers not equipped to handle thin polyethylene bags, clog storm drains or end up in the ocean where they pose a serious threat to marine life as they slowly photodegrade into microscopic bits of plastic.

When you consider the long-term implications of a product designed to be used for just a few minutes, reducing the number of plastic bags seems like a no-brainer.  So why wouldn’t New York City try to get rid of them altogether with a ban or at least some kind of fee?

Think about it: no more discarded plastic bags dancing in the wind along our streets, tangled in tree branches or floating around our ankles at the beach. (Perhaps sadly, no more Bag Monster costumes.)  But there are a couple of reasons why bag restrictions are a tough sell in New York City.

First, let’s face it: we've gotten really use to having these bags around.  I rarely see anyone picking up their dog’s poop with anything other than a plastic shopping bag.  The bags also happen to be the perfect size for lining small trashcans.  And what better way to store food waste for composting than in a plastic bag in the freezer, safe from the relentless pursuit of pests?

The fact is none of these are deal breakers.  Reusable bags or containers will work just fine in the freezer, trashcans don’t always need liners if you wash them regularly and your canine companion has a lot of pooper-scooper options at its disposal. Human behavior being what it is, there would have to be some sort of negative financial consequence to inspire us to give up our plastic fetish.  In other words, bans or fees.

Enter problem number two: the Progressive Bag Affiliates (PBA, previously “Progressive Bag Alliance”).  The PBA – comprised of the American Chemistry Council and a lot of plastic bag manufacturers – would really rather we recycle our plastic bags.  So New Yorkers do...maybe.

Let’s review.  Plastic bags make up the largest source of plastic in the city’s waste, so back in 2008 City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, with the PBA’s blessing, successfully pushed for New York City’s plastic bag recycling program.  The problem was that plastic bag recycling nationwide was a meager 6 percent, and  since the city’s program relied on customers bringing their plastic bags to large stores or retail chains to recycle them, it’s nowhere near as easy as leaving them in bins outside your house.  Still, this was progress.

Then, Mayor Bloomberg got another idea: why not up the ante and charge a six-cents-per-bag fee to cut the plastic waste stream even more?  After all, it worked for the Brooklyn IKEA, which started charging five cents per bag with nary a customer revolt, and in turn cut plastic bag use in half. Why not take that successful concept and run with it?

Because while the PBA loves recycling, it hates bans and taxes.  When the PBA testified in favor of Speaker Quinn’s bag recycling program, the association’s PR consultant made his feelings on any stricter measures abundantly clear: "Bans are all feel good and do no good."   The mayor backed off when Speaker Quinn took the bag fee off the table amid rumblings from some council members that the fee constituted a tax on food.

But how are bag restrictions in other cities, states and countries working out?

Let’s take a quick world tour.  In 2002, Ireland began taxing plastic bags to the tune of 21 cents per bag, leading to a 90% reduction in retailer purchases of the bags (and that fee was increased in 2006).  In China, the government banned single-use plastic bags in 2008, reducing plastic bag use by 66 percent and saving the country 1.6 million tons of petroleum.  Back in the United States, San Francisco banned plastic bags outright in 2007 and since then 13 other cities or counties in California have imposed some sort of restriction on the bags.  The first plastic bag restriction east of the Mississippi was enacted in 2009 in Westport, CT, while Easthampton and Southampton, NY enacted bans earlier this year.

Perhaps, though, the best east coast example from which New York City can derive some inspiration is Washington, D.C.

In 2010, the nation’s capitol imposed a five cent fee for both plastic and paper single-use bags, the proceeds of which go towards cleaning up the Anacostia River, which was being choked by plastic litter.  The D.C. city council was able to withstand a lobbying push by the PBA, unlike the failed proposals in other east coast cities like Philadelphia, where one city council member remarked, "In five years of working in Council, I've never dealt with a lobbying effort like this."  In D.C. the result was an immediate decline in the number of disposable bags given out by food and grocery establishments, from 22.5 million per month in 2009, to about 3 million in January 2010, the first month with the new fee.

The reason that D.C.’s bag restriction worked was twofold.  First, the city diffused the “food tax” argument because retailers gave out hundreds of thousands of free reusable bags when the fee was enacted. Second, the city didn’t focus on plastic bags exclusively, instead the focus was on single-use, disposable bags, whether paper or plastic.

This is a key point because, surprisingly, the plastic and paper bag industries are in no way aligned against efforts to ban or tax single use bags.  In fact, they often pit themselves against each other.  Case in point is a PBA fact sheet that claims to be about the benefits of plastic bag recycling, but instead just hammers away on the negative impacts of paper bags (which, to be fair, are many).

Research supports two key aspects of the D.C. model: First, bag fees directly passed on to consumers are effective at altering behavior, and second, if those fees apply only to one type of bag, consumers will likely switch to other, non-taxed disposable bags.

So if a New York City council member, or perhaps the next mayor, were brave enough to push for drastic reductions in single use bag waste beyond the current recycling program, the effort would have to expand beyond plastic bags.  Reducing the amount of single-use bags, whether paper or plastic, and the impact they have throughout their whole lifecycle, from the energy and water needed for manufacturing to the economic and environmental costs of disposal, should be the goal.

As other cities and countries have shown, the most effective way to significantly cut down on single-use bags is by revealing their hidden costs and making the convenience they provide a little less attractive.

Recycling is a nice start, but for each of us to kick our 330-disposable-bag-per-year habit, we're going to need a little push.  Paper or plastic? Time to think ahead and BYOB.