Bagging Plastic Bags

by Nelson Harvey

Each time customers at the NYU bookstore put a token in this box, a nickel is donated to the environmental group of their choice.

The bookstore at NYU is donating a nickel to an environmental organization each time a customer refuses a plastic bag with their purchase, according to a report in today’s edition of the Washington Square News, a student newspaper. The bookstore orders about 325,000 bags per year, and is hoping to cut down on that number by funneling five cents per refused bag to one of the following organizations: The National Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace, New Yorkers for Parks, or the National Audubon Society.

Could such a program work for New York City as a whole? In a town where convenience store clerks will eagerly double bag such paltry items as a banana or a pack of cigarettes, a reduction in the number of bags used could have serious environmental benefits. According to the Sierra Club, if everyone in the city used one less grocery bag per year, it would save $250,000 in disposal costs and reduce waste by 5 million lbs. Of course, given New York’s population of over eight million people, it could be much more efficient to simply ban the bags outright, as San Francisco has done. At the very least, heavily taxing the bags would yield results: in Ireland, a 20 cent tax on each plastic grocery bag has reduced their use by 90 percent.

Modern groceries, lamentably bagged

So what is the city doing to deal with the bag issue? Councilman Michael McMahon, who chairs the City Council committee on Sanitation and Waste Management, is working with other committee members on several different bills, and I’ve been told that they hope to unveil one compromise measure sometime in October. There’s disagreement on whether to tax bags, ban them outright, offer some sort of rebate program similar to the state Bottle Bill, or simply require stores to take them back after use. Whatever the approach, it will likely take effect only in larger stores at first, so it may take some time for the measure to impact the corner bodega.

If the city does ban bags, it’ll be important to find a low-impact replacement. In San Francisco, this comes in the form of biodegradable or paper bags. But since New York doesn’t have a municipal composting program, biodegradable products would go to the landfill along with everything else. In any case, it seems wise to have lots of cheap canvas reusable bags on hand, to deal with the surge in demand once the real cost of plastics is finally legislated.

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