plastic bags bans (what they actually mean)

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

General Overview:

This March 1, 2020 marks the initiation of NY State's plastic bag ban. If that sounds harsh or vague or generally exciting, we're here to provide some insight.


Firstly, NY is the 3rd state, after CA in 2016 and HI to initiate this official move away from plastic bags. This "ban" means that businesses are no longer allowed to distribute plastic film bags-- think grocery stores, bodegas and whatever other stores pack your stuff in a bag and shove it to you before you can even pay or say, "no thank you." Paper bags are still allowed, but depending on what county you're shopping in, there might be a fee per each. In some counties, the fee will go straight to the Environmental Protection Fund of NY, but it's up to each county to decide this.


THE USEFUL FACTS you can walk away confidently with:

+ Plastic bags are a type of film plastic

+ Film plastics cannot be recycled in regular household recycling bins. Instead, they go in recycling bins specific for film plastics. You can find these when entering/leaving grocery stores or spots like CVS, Walgreens etc.

+ Stores that give away grocery, retail, garment, dry cleaning bags and even shipping envelopes legally must make collection bins for film plastics available to customers in a visible, easily accessible location.

+ This site outlines NY guidelines


If they do not, you can email recycling@dec.ny.gov or call (518) 402-8706 to provide the street, address + city. If they’re not complying, you can also reach out to atlantic.chapter@sierraclub.org

Woohoo! Let’s get on this because it’ll make it easier for all of us to drop these silly bags off more easily.


Some Caveats:

1/ Though the movement begins March 1, the NY Department of Environmental Conservation won't enforce any penalties until April 1st. This is partly due to a big bag manufacturer suing the state, arguing essentially for a ban on bans.


2/ Food takeout bags from restaurants, deli bags used to wrap meat/ prepared food, garment bags, and general trash bags bought in bulk are still fine for businesses to use. So if you still see a lot of lingering plastic bag usage without penalty, despite all this hullabaloo this might be why.


Lobbyists of the plastics industry bag manufacturers and larger food retailers are still actively attempting to make a ban on bans. They claim that the ban will hurt smaller retailers and local shops, that plastic bags are actually the most earth friendly option, that jobs in manufacturing will be lost and that 90% of Americans actually re-use disposable plastic bags. We don't know about you, but we read science articles that are peer-reviewed and not funded by lobby or special interest groups. So, though this ban starting is a victory, legislation can still change under the influence of lobbies, and we must stay informed so that we can continue to support scientific truths for a better world for all.


Why is this law important?

When we are constantly using and not disposing of bags properly, they end up:

1/ blocking storm/sewage drains = dirtier, uglier cities

2/ entangling and killing wildlife = disrupting ecosystems causing even more harm to us in the not-so-long-run

3/ mistakenly in water streams from which we drink and where marine life nourishes itself

4/ pieces break off, known as microplastics, which end up unwontedly in the earth, in our food system, air, and in us. Ultimately, WE unknowingly consume and end up with a lot of plastic in our bodies, which is a growing public health concern.

5/ we have the opportunity to serve and set an example for the rest of the country. We can lead this movement forward smoothly, easily, and successfully to a future that we can all be proud to be a part of.


Some other benefits of this step forward:

Ever catch yourself saying, eh fuck it, I'll throw another eggplant, bag of chips (okay maybe something more perishable), bundle of bananas in my cart at the store, only to realize a week later that you got more produce than needed and had to toss it? Okay yes, then you are a real human and this totally happens to even the most organized of us attempting to be responsible adults. BUT, imagine if you could only fit so much in your bag-- this step forward toward more mindful consumption forces us to ask what we normally should with every purchase: do I really need this? It encourages us to use our money more wisely (which really, your wallet will thank you for) while also allowing us to simplify-- buy less, toss less, waste less, show businesses that we don't need to consume beyond our means to grow and build a society and economy of quality (we don't need to consume MORE STUFF in order to innovate, evolve technology or cause our economy to grow, but this is another subject for another time).


Also, by diverting bags from landfill, we'll be lessoning toxins they'd normally give off while also minimizing tax dollars, gas, and human energy spent on trucking plastic bags unnecessarily from curbside pickup. Way back in 2004, the City of San Francisco calculated, using the 50 million bags used in the city that year, to estimate that it costed the city 17 cents per bag to clean up and send to landfill. Keep in mind that plastic consumption has grown and we use more, so this cost is probably even higher now.

The Breakdown

Contamination of recycling stream: $1.09 million/year = 2.2 cents per bag. Collecting and disposing of bags: $3.6 million/year = 7.2 cents per bag. Removing bags from streets: $2.6 million/year = 5.2 cents per bag. Processing in landfills: $1.2 million/year = 2.4 cents per bag. Total cost per bag in SF alone: $8.49 million/year = 17 cents per bag

These costs are similar across the US.


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Are plastic bags really so bad?

Let's do some simple reasoning. Plastic film bags themselves take a ton of energy to produce as well as require fossil fuels. For an average plastic bag to be used for a total of 12 minutes before being tossed, are the production processes it has gone through, hands that have touched it, materials and energy consumed, miles traveled to get to your local shop worth it relative to the short amount it'll be used? Really, if most of us have bags to spare (Marie Kondo'd anytime recently?) can we with honest hearts and minds say that this cycle of making to toss is a smart societal habit to continue and propagate? Economically and environmentally it's a total waste of materials, energy, efforts and time. It's a cycle of waste in a world of beauty. On top of that, this stuff NEVER GOES AWAY. It never leaves earth. Ever. It simply breaks into smaller bits which have been shown to make their way into our bodies (you can read more about that issue here and here).


"It's not just the plastic in itself that's bad. It's the disposable practices that comes from the convenient mindset." The perceived cheapness and availability of thin film plastic bags has enforced the ease of throwing these plastics "away." Hell, I go to friend's home's all the time and see these plastic grocery bags in the trash. It's become "normal" to constantly use and dispose this because we are not forced to see the impact or repercussions. In the past, I used to use baggies to clean up my dog's poop on walks, but there are biodegradable bags that I learned to use instead. In reality, the plastic does not go away simply because it's out of sight or trucked away to landfill.


Is a bag ban elitist?

this is an argument that has surfaced and it is important that we look thoroughly and honestly at all stakeholders that new regulations will effect. Simply put, it's not elitist. In counties implementing a 5 cent fee (there are only actually 4 right now) for paper bags, anyone on SNAP or WIC won't be asked to pay this fee. Also, the state has purchased over a quarter of a million reusable bags to give out at food pantries and get people started.



What can I do with the plastic bags that I have now?

if over the years (or this week), you’ve accumulated a cupboard of plastic bags, what the heck do you do with them?


1/ RECYCLE THEM IN A BIN DESIGNATED FOR FILM PLASTICS

When bags are returned for proper recycling, they can be:


reprocessed into small pellets —> new bags, containers, crates + pipe.


THIS MEANS virgin resources aren’t needed to make all of these products, so you’re keeping us from creating more plastic trash + engaging in dependence on fossil fuels. Plus, recycled material for new bags (remember, plastic bags will still be in circulation by takeout restaurants etc.) uses only two-thirds of the energy required to make them from raw materials.


* to recycle them, they can’t be wet and should be clean of mystery gunk and lingering receipts. everything plastic film recycling, you can find here.


2/ UPCYCLE THEM W/ A DIY PROJECT:

+ easy baskets you can use as a fruit bowl, plant pot, a catchall for keys, mail or dog toys

+ crocheted sturdy bags that you CAN reuse or laundry basket or mat (anything sturdy you'd normally crochet, you can typically use plastic bag yarn aka Plarn!)



more info articles on this

+ NY guidelines and general info on this update and all things plastic film recycling

+ How laws on plastic bags have been successful in other cities + countries

+ How + how many microplastics end up in our bodies?

+ Canadian Scientists estimate that we consume over 74,000 plastic particles/year on avg (and that's an under-estimation)

+ images w/ some kind of crazy facts about plastic consumption


Generally, plastic bags are simply something we don't need. Whether you're going to pick up lunch, a snack, groceries, your dog's business on the sidewalk, I think we can agree that we do not NEED plastic to complete these tasks.


Also remember that we have lived many years without dependence on plastic bags. Many communities and countries simply do not use single use plastic bags the way we have grown rapidly accustomed to here, in the US and hey, they're doing just fine!


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