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Should New York City start charging for single-use bags?

| April 17, 2014

A recent editorial in the New York Times spells out a convincing argument for doing away with plastic grocery bags. “There’s something ridiculous about the life of a two-handled plastic shopping bag,” says the editorial board. “The 20 minutes it spends cradling your groceries home is bracketed by two vast gulfs of time. First, thousands of years beneath the earth, in a natural-gas deposit, and then, after its conversion to a disposable polyethylene product, a second eternity as all-but-indestructible trash.”

The next time you ask for a plastic grocery bag for your cottage cheese and bananas, you might consider the fact that you are using a product during its extraordinarily brief tenure of functionality.

Is it worth it?

single-use bags

Plastic bags have the unfortunate tendency to end up in unintended places. From Kate Ter Haar.

The Timeseditorial board doesn’t seem to think so. They discuss a litany of complaints against the plastic grocery bag, including the tendency of discarded bags to “flutter from tree branches and power lines” and “foul beaches and roadsides.” Aside from being an eyesore, they endanger fish, clog storm drains, and pile up in landfills. Indeed, New York City spends an estimated $10 million per year simply to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills in other states.

New Yorkers churn through 5.2 billion plastic bags per year. That stunningly high number doesn’t even seem possible, but it’s what city officials have said.

The solution, according to the New York City Council: a 10 cent fee to be imposed on every single-use bag at retail and grocery stores in the city. Retailers would use the money to stock paper and reusable bags.

The plastic bag fee is a modest alternative to the plastic bag laws that has been enacted in other metropolitan areas. It’s also not universal. The proposed bill exempts certain operations, including restaurants, food pantries, street vendors who sell prepared food and customers using food stamps. These exemptions are “meant to ease the burden on the poor,” and they’re also for logistical reasons. As the editorial points out, banning the bags outright may not be entirely practical — yet — in NYC, as “bicycle takeout without plastic bags in New York City is hard to imagine.”

The editorial calls for further exploration of a more decisive and permanent solution to the plastic bag problem in New York City, but says that “10 cent bags is a start.”

Within a few days of the bill’s introduction, 19 council members had already voiced their support. In order to be sent to the mayor for approval, 26 members need to be on board. Mayor de Blasio has not said whether or not he’ll sign off on the bill, which is being sponsored by Brad Lander and Margaret Chin.

So does this mean that everyone can just use paper bags instead? Not so fast. As the bill is currently written, the fee will apply to paper bags as well, to thwart a mass conversion from plastic to paper (which carries its own environmental problems). The goal, overall, is to reduce the use of single-use bags altogether.

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Category: Paper, Plastic, Recycling programs, Regulations

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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