By Mary Marvin, Mayor, Village of Bronxville
Jan.29, 2020: On March 1, New York State will ban plastic bags distributed by any business required to pay and collect New York State taxes. The bill also allows counties to decide to charge an optional five cent fee for customers who chose paper bags vs. reusable bags.
Bags exempt from the law include those used by pharmacies to carry prescription drugs, produce bags for bulk items such as fruit and vegetables, bags for wrapped deli meat, restaurant take out bags, dry cleaning bags, newspaper bags, and garbage bags.
New York is the second state to impose such a ban following California. Hawaii also effectively has a ban since all counties state-wide ban the use of plastic bags. Over 200 U.S. cities also have legislation that bans tax plastic bags. Among them are Eugene, Oregon, Anchorage, Alaska, Portland, Maine and Boston, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Many countries worldwide outpaced us on a ban. By 2018, 127 countries had introduced some plastic bag ban policy, and 27 countries ban plastic plates, cups, straws, and packaging.
Kenya’s law, enacted in 2017, is considered the world’s toughest as producing, selling, or even seen using plastic bags risks imprisonment and fines.
Plastic bag waste in China reached such high levels that citizens coined the term “white pollution” before a full ban was adopted in 2008.
In 2018, only three months after Australia’s two largest supermarket chains stopped using plastic bags, the country reduced its plastic bag use by 80%.
Digging a little deeper and for discussion sake, I researched whether plastic bags are that bad vis a vis paper bags?
Many believe paper bags are more environmentally friendly because they are made from a renewable resource, are biodegradable, and recyclable. However, plastic bags actually outperform paper bags environmentally in manufacturing, reuse, and solid waste volume.
The manufacture of paper bags consumes four times more water and has a mass five to seven times that of plastic bags. As a result, they generate an equal amount more tonnage to the waste system, and this, in turn, results in a five to seven fold increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Due to their intrinsic mass, it takes seven trucks to transport the same number of paper bags as plastic bags which fit in a single truck, greatly affecting the carbon footprint and increasing emissions that affect climate change. Britain’s counterpart to our EPA conducted a lifecycle assessment of various bag options and concluded you have to reuse a paper bag at least three times before its environmental impact equals that of a plastic bag used only once. Unless you are reusing your paper bags a lot, they look like a poor option from a global warming standpoint.
Paper actually occupies approximately half of landfill volume vs 9 to 12% for plastics. Though plastics do not biodegrade, modern landfills are designed in such a way now that nothing biodegrades because the waste is encapsulated, thus isolated from air and water in order to prevent ground water contamination and pollution.
Though plastic bags don’t do that much harm sitting in a landfill, the bigger problems arise when they are not disposed of properly. American consumers use more than 100 billion plastic bags each year, (500 billion are used worldwide), with only a fraction ever being recycled. As a result, they end up clinging to trees, invading the wild, clogging waterways and impacting marine and wildlife. As an example, San Jose, California, found that plastic bags made up 12% of the litter in their waterways.
After a 2012 ban, they recorded a 60% reduction in plastic bags in water bodies and an 89% reduction in storm drains. Stray plastic bags also clog sewer pipes leading to stagnant standing water and the associated health hazards.
Most importantly, plastic bags pose a major threat to worldwide marine life. Nearly 9,000,000 tons of plastic ends up in the oceans yearly, and the amount is projected to triple in the next decade. The trash filled vortex so named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now twice the size of Texas. Marine animals often mistake plastic for food, and if ingested, can cause disease and starvation. A whale recently washing up on the shores of Normandy had over 800 grams of plastic in his stomach.
More than the bag, what we place in it at time of purchase makes a greater impact on the environment. Our global food system is responsible for one fourth of world planet warming greenhouse gas emissions, with meat and dairy having a disproportionately large impact. Put another way, a pound of beef bought at the supermarket will have roughly 25 times the global warming impact as the disposable plastic bag it’s carried in. In essence, to decrease, if desired, your carbon footprint, dietary choices are an even better place to start than plastic bags, though in a very emblematic way, the bags have become a highly visible sign of waste.
Though the ban is clearly laudable, especially as it relates to our marine ecosystem, we can never rest in our quest to change our daily habits that result in an even greater impact on our environment; Bringing reusable bags when shopping is an impactful first step.
Photo by A. Warner
Editor's note: As a public service, MyhometownBronxville publishes articles from local institutions, officeholders, and individuals. MyhometownBronxville does not fact-check statements therein, and any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the thinking of its staff.