Thoughts on Plastic Bags and the Ban


It’s official. The plastic bag ban will take effect on March 1st across New York state.

The ban is an attempt to reduce the amount of plastic bag pollution on the streets, in green spaces, and in our waterways. Plastic bags, also called plastic film, are not easily recyclable. Usually, the only way they can be recycled is by the businesses that distribute them and there aren’t any incentives to do this. In fact, businesses must be no less than 5,000 square feet to take them back. Then there’s additional responsibilities that are mandatory like selling reusable bags and keeping count of what’s received/recycled.

Most consumers don’t even know that this type of program exists and that’s why it’s not successful. People usually use the plastic bags as small garbage bags, throw them in the trash, or *drumroll* try to recycle them through local curbside recycling programs. However, that’s problematic as well. Plastic film is known to jam sorting mechanisms in recycling centers.

NYC recycling sorting center. Image source: @simsmuni

So, although the plastic bag ban is for a recognizably good cause, not everyone is in favor of it. Many New Yorkers are worried about adapting to a new lifestyle of carrying reusable bags as an alternative. Are they suggesting that a fast-paced city cannot lead the green revolution? What is it like for a city to ban bags? And what should we expect come March? Let’s explore.

For starters, we should think about California as an example. They banned plastic bags back in November of 2016, becoming the second state to do so. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, it resulted in decreasing their plastic bag use by almost 80%. While customers had hesitations, they adapted well. The world did not end.

However, successful as it seems, lobbyists, business owners, and some plastic companies fought for thicker plastic bags to be in use–and they actually won. Simply because these bags have the capability of being reused about 125 times. Although (even with this ability) they are still being utilized like single-use products. Additionally, Rebecca Taylor, an economist of the University of Sydney, published a study saying that the California plastic bag ban influenced an increase in thicker plastic bag purchases.

So why is this relevant to NYS’ plastic bag ban? Well, it’s because we need to realistically consider how the ban will transform and what we’re up against in the future.

Plastic bag pollution in the South Bronx. Image source: @honorablementionsny

So what should we expect on March 1st? The reduction of plastic bags will happen by banning certain retailers from providing “plastic carryout bags” to customers. It’s actually called the “Bag Waste Reduction Law” by NYS’ Department of Environmental Conservation. Instead, they will have an option to purchase paper bags at 5¢ a bag. One thing worth noticing is that this ban is only for certain retailers.

That’s because some plastic bags are exempt from it. This includes plastic film for: fresh foods and plants, sliced foods made to order, newspaper/magazines subscriptions, household trash bags, food storage bags, garment bags, restaurant takeout, pharmacy prescriptions, and for whatever else the department deems necessary for plastic film use.

With all of these exemptions, there’s still plenty of convenience from plastic bags. Just not as much as we’re used to having and that discomfort is necessary. It’s necessary for humanity to grow and learn from. Do we want added convenience, or do we want a clean planet to live and thrive on?

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