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Blair Horner: Ring In The New Year – But Without The Plastic, Bags That Is

As the holiday shopping season hits its peak, not only are consumers buying lots of gifts, they are accumulating an incredible number of plastic bags.  Combined with the ongoing plastic bag use, New Yorkers gets an incredible number of plastic bags – almost always for one, and only one-time, use.  According to the Cuomo Administration, “residents use 23 billion plastic bags annually.  A significant number of these bags make their way into the environment causing litter and damaging wildlife, which can be seen within our waterways, along our streets and in our oceans and lakes.  Moreover, these bags do not biodegrade – they persist for years.”

The problem is not unique to New York; it is a global problem.  According to a recent report, experts estimate that over eight million tons of plastic waste ends up in the world’s oceans each year, and that amount is likely to increase dramatically over the next decade unless nations act.

The amount of plastics waste found in the ocean is the equivalent of “five plastic grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world.”  Experts estimate that by 2025, the amount of plastic waste entering the oceans would double, or the equivalent of 10 bags per foot of coastline.  The plastic that ends up in the ocean isn’t just unsightly and harmful to aquatic life, it ends up in the food chain, including shellfish, fish and even sea salt.

While the United States is not the world’s worst offender – that distinction goes to China – the U.S. generates an estimated 110,000 metric tons of marine debris a year.

The average American throws out 185 pounds of plastic every year.  Cutting plastic bag use can dramatically reduce waste. 

In addition to the benefits to reducing the amount of garbage in the oceans, plastic bags aren’t biodegradable, and less than one percent of plastic bags are recycled.  Even when they are, it costs more to recycle a plastic bag than the cost of producing a new one.  One staff member from San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, commented, “There’s harsh economics behind bag recycling: It costs $4,000 to process and recycle one ton of plastic bags, which can then be sold on the commodities market for $32.”

Earlier this year, Governor Cuomo approved legislation that retroactively overturned New York City’s then recently passed local law to address the proliferation of plastic bags as litter, ecological damage and as part of the City’s solid waste disposal burden.  The new state law also prohibited the City from passing a new law until January, 2018 at the earliest.  Oddly, other local laws around the state that banned plastic bags were not covered by the legislation.

In order to take some of the sting out of his approval of the state legislation overturning a local law, Governor Cuomo created the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force.  The Task Force was charged with developing a report and proposed legislation to address the detrimental impact of plastic bags on the state’s environment.  The Task Force has been meeting and it is expected that the governor will advance changes during the 2018 state legislative session. 

It is hoped that the governor will advance a plan to drastically restrict, and in some cases ban, the use of plastic bags for retail purchases.

There is ample evidence that such a program could work.  California’s experience is most instructive for New York.  Like New York, California has a large, diverse population with large urban areas and a substantial coastline.  California’s law has been in force for over a year. 

The California law has two major components: (1) a statewide ban on thin plastic bags (under 2.25 mils) that are the ones most often distributed by supermarkets (those with handles, not the ones used to wrap foodstuffs); and (2) a minimum 10-cent fee for paper & reusable bags (including thicker plastic bags).

California’s law has been a success.  As described by the Los Angeles Times, “Californians took in stride the sudden absence of some 13 billion bags that in previous years were handed out at grocery checkout counters and by other retailers of all sorts.”  Not only were consumers able to handle the change in their shopping experience, but there was a significant reduction in the amount of plastic bags found on California beaches.  Again according to the Times, “Plastic bags (both the banned and the legal variety) accounted for 3.1% of the litter collected from the state’s beaches during the 2017 Coastal Cleanup Day, down from to 7.4% in 2010.”

The result?  The Times calls it a success: “Shoppers did not revolt or launch recall campaigns against state lawmakers. Food still gets to people’s houses. Reusable bags did not spark an epidemic of food-borne illnesses, as some critics suggested they would. Consumers didn’t go broke paying 10 cents apiece for the thicker, reusable plastic bags stores are allowed to distribute instead.”

California’s experience shows that its law is a good model – consumers can easily adapt and plastic bag trash is slashed.  Let’s hope that with Governor Cuomo’s push, next holiday season will be just as cheerful – for New Yorkers and the environment. 

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.

They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.