As the school year continues, the inevitable trip to Staples serves as a ritual pastime. However, when taking their plastic bags from the checkout, many customers fail to recognize what a controversial act this is. Currently going through the City Council is a bill aimed directly at the overuse of plastic bags in New York City, pitting business leaders squarely against environmental activists.
It has long been recognized that the plastic bag is detrimental to the environment. Taking centuries to decompose, plastic bags have been devastating marine settings and taking up landfill space for generations. New Yorkers alone use over 5.2 billion plastic bags every year.
In the last decade, cities across the globe, including Mumbai, Mexico City and Seattle, have adopted legislation to combat this unnecessary environmental disaster. They have cultivated a bring-your-own-bag culture, using shrewd policies such as hiding plastic bags out of public view and giving incentives for customers who bring their own.
New York is missing on this list. For a city and mayor known for their quick adoption of progressive environmental and health issues — from banning trans fats in restaurants to prohibiting smoking in all commercial areas — this city lags far behind others in improving the state of the shopping bag. According to Wal-Mart, the largest retailer to back BYOB since late 2007, if every person in New York City used just one less grocery bag per year, it would reduce waste by 125,000 pounds per year.
However, countless reform attempts over the years have been stymied by business and consumer concerns. After the last failed attempt at reform in 2008 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, two City Council members, Margaret Chin and Brad Lander, have decided to co-sponsor a bill, which would introduce a 10 cent minimum charge on each bag used. The bill intends to curb the city’s ever-increasing demand for plastic bags in hopes of encouraging consumers to switch tact and buy a reusable bag.
Of course, local business leaders have come out in masses to protest against another green initiative. However, the environmental benefits clearly outweigh business concerns. Looking west as an example, San Francisco’s Office of Economic Analysis released a study shortly before the city’s introduction of the ban on plastic bags. The study demonstrated that retailers are the primary beneficiaries, as it directly reduces their overhead costs and gives them the opportunity of providing alternative reusable bags. In addition, New York City spends approximately $10 million a year on moving plastic bags to landfills, which could better be utilized elsewhere if consumers switched to a sustainable alternative.
The plastic bag has been synonymous with shopping since its incarnation. It has become a blight on the eco-friendly city Bloomberg is so keen to portray New York as to the world. It is now time to rip the connection between the plastic bag and shopping. Chin and Lander’s bill is a step in the right direction, but more can, and should, be done.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 9 print edition. Harry Brown is a contributing columnist. Email him at [email protected]