Guest post by Will von Geldern of EarthShare of New York member charity New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund (NYLCVEF)
Since their creation in the 1960s, plastic bags have plagued cities. Despite their supposed usefulness, their proliferation has interfered with the wellbeing of ecosystems and municipal functioning – so much so, in fact, that the United Nations has called for an effort to stop producing them. Because the damage done by plastic bags greatly outweighs the benefits, some cities have sought to either tax their usage or ban them altogether. Can New York City follow suit?
A Nuisance for Animals and Humans Alike
Plastic bags first arrived on the scene in the 1960s when petrochemical companies sought a use for the by-products of natural gas. Swedish inventor Sten Thulin first filed a patent for bag material in 1962, and though the public remained reticent to accept the new product, by the 1980s they became a cheap alternative to paper bags. At the time, many saw the use of plastic bags as a means of avoiding the destruction of trees that paper bags entailed.
In the decades since, plastic bags have had an obvious, detrimental effect on the environment. Because they do not biodegrade, plastic bags have immense longevity, taking as long as a millennium to break down in landfills. They can choke animals, and waterborne bags have carried invasive species to new areas. Because animals cannot digest plastic bags, an ingested bag can kill or interfere with their bodies’ functioning.
In cities, sanitation departments struggle to pick up all the bags that flutter in the wind, and even if properly discarded, plastic bags can follow air currents, spreading them across large areas. Although in theory people can reuse plastic bags, the world goes through more than a trillion annually. In New York City, so many plastic bags get disposed of improperly that it interferes with regular recycling.
What Have Other Cities Done?
With New York currently weighing the options of banning or taxing the use of plastic bags, policymakers have looked to other parts of the country for guidance.
Most notably, California moved to ban the bags statewide until a petition by trade groups forced the measure to go to a vote in 2016. In Chicago, an attempted ban ended in disappointment when retailers utilized a loophole in the law to continue using bags. The Village of Hastings-on-Hudson in New York, meanwhile, faced a lawsuit in response to its attempt at a ban.
In Washington D.C., by contrast, the implementation of a five-cent tax per bag cut the number of single-use bags from 22.5 million monthly to just three million, and all while raising $2.5 million for other environmental efforts. For this reason, some have argued that fees have a better chance of success than outright bans.
To Fee or Not to Fee
The question of whether to ban bags completely, or simply tax them, has remained a contentious discussion. The sweeping nature of a complete ban, as evidenced by the current controversy in California, makes it a somewhat impractical option.
By contrast, a 10-cent bag fee would cut down on their use immensely without running afoul of industry advocates. Further, as seen in Washington, D.C., the revenues accrued from the endeavor would help to fund other environmental initiatives.
Attempts on the other side of the Atlantic have shown similar successes for the tax model. In both Wales and Ireland, fees for plastic bag use cut their prevalence down by 96 percent and 90 percent, respectively. For this reason, NYLCVEF has advocated for a fee in New York City and will continue to do so in communities across the state.
Cities Winning Against Plastic Bag Pollution, EarthShare
Plastic Bag Bans and Fees, Surfrider Foundation
The DC Bag Fee Is Cleaning Up the Anacostia River, Anacostia Watershed Society