The End of Plastic Bags in New York City

When I worked at the video store, people would rent a single DVD and then ask me for a bag—people who lived a block away and only had to carry home a practically weightless rectangle of plastic that fit easily into the palm of any hand, even a child’s. Such profligate plastic usage is part of the reason New York consumes 5.2 billion plastic bags a year—an average of 630 bags per person per year, or a dozen per week. That’s a lot of plastic, tons of plastic you might say: as a city, we pay tens of millions of dollars of every year to send 100,000 tons of plastic bags to out-of-state landfills.

You can recycle plastic bags in New York City, not in the curbside trash but by bringing them to the vestibules of chain pharmacies and exit-aisles of supermarkets, but I’m the only person I know who does that; also, the large plastic bins always have iced-coffee cups and receipts and other petty litter, because most people don’t know what’s going on around them or don’t care, and it worries me that such befoulments will corrupt the whole batch. Plastic bags are the bane of environmentalists, the scourge of motorists (who not infrequently find them trapped to their tailpipes and burning), and the nightmare of apartment dwellers whose kitchen windows face tree limbs where the oil-based totes have become entangled. Plus, they’re responsible for that scene in American Beauty that might be the worst scene in a movie ever.

So why not get rid of them? Should environmental policy be built around what makes life easier for dog walkers? (Relax dog owners; I am a dog owner.) Bloomberg attempted to impose a tax in 2008 that would help to reduce the number of bags used, but the legislation died in the City Council. It’s been revived, this time not by Bloomberg but by that selfsame council, some members of which have tweaked the legislation to make it possibly more palatable, Gothamist reports: this time it’s not a tax; the 10 cents levied on each bag would go to the store owner and not the city. It would also apply to paper bags (so as not to seem biased?).

And also because, you know, paper bags aren’t really a better choice ecologically. The larger problem is consumption; even reusable bags are imperfect—they “cannot be recycled, are made from foreign oil and imported at a rate of 500 million annually,” according to a pro-plastic bag advocacy group. But, look, sometimes you have to buy a bunch of groceries, and it’d be best to have a reusable bag on standby for such situations. Mostly, however, people should just carry the things they buy; you don’t need a bag to transport a six-pack or a carton of soy milk. Better yet, just stop buying stuff, and then you won’t have to worry about how to carry it!

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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