Look out! The plastic-bag police may be coming to a store near you! That’s because New York City Councilmembers Brad Lander and Margaret Chin are seriously considering passing a bill that will tax plastic bag use at 10 cents a bag. Stores will have to charge the fee to customers who want to haul off their purchases in plastic bags. Stores that don’t comply will be slapped with a $250 fine per violation.
The reason for the Council’s war against plastic bags is concern over litter, the cost of carting bags to landfills and impact on the environment. New York City discards an estimated 100,000 tons of plastic bags a year, a mountain of trash that costs the city $10 million a year to process and ship to landfills. Certainly, that’s not chump change and plastic bags do flutter and fly their way to litter streets, parks and beaches. But the alternatives to plastic bags are, in many ways, more damaging to the environment and more costly to consumers.
The City Council should look at the research before it yields to environmentalists who, in the pursuit of being green, see red every time they see a plastic bag. The conviction that just because something is biodegradable it is superior is wrong.
Some environmentalists would like to have us use only paper bags; after all, they are biodegradable. But unlike plastic bags, paper bags have limited durability. Consumers use plastics bags to pack their lunches, carry their books, and as garbage bags; whereas paper bags are unable to sustain any kind of heavy or drippy load. One study reported that consumers reuse plastic bags 90 percent of the time; paper bags are mostly used once.
Paper bags also leave a much heavier carbon footprint than plastic. It takes four times as many trucks to deliver paper bags as it does to ship an equivalent number of plastic bags. That means that whatever fossil fuels are saved by using paper are negated because of the greater amount of fuel required to transport it.
Furthermore, paper bags come from trees, and aren’t those the things that environmental alarmists keep telling us we have to preserve to prevent hothouse gases from causing the greenhouse effect? Replacing 100,000 tons of plastic bags with ones made of paper sounds like a plan to deforestation. And if the City Council wants us to become bag men and women — bringing our own reusable cotton or canvas bags to stores, they will have to meter the usage of such bags to achieve better results than plastic ones. According to “The Lifecycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags,” a study by the United Kingdom Environment Agency (the UK’s equivalent of the EPA), reusable cotton bags have to be used for 171 days before they are more green than plastic bags. The average consumer, the report showed, used cotton bags only 51 times. The resources to grow the material to produce reusable fiber bags, their manufacture and disposal, make them environment killers. Even after 171 uses, reusable bags were more damaging to the environment than plastic bags for some environmental indicators. And even the UK study didn’t factor in the amount of water and detergent that would be used to wash and dry non-disposable bags.
Besides having a lower impact on the environment, plastic bags are simply healthier as they are more sanitary. Reusable bags are incubators for bacteria and even cancer-causing pathogens. One study found escherichia coli in 12 percent of the bags. A 2012 article appearing in the Journal of Infectious Diseases attributed the spread of a dangerous norovirus to a reusable shopping bag carried by a soccer player. Scientists found the virus still active in the bag a full two weeks after the player had become ill.
New York City produces a lot of garbage — too much garbage; and plastic bags contribute to New York’s garbage haul, no doubt — but the amount is not as much as environmentalists would like us to believe. Even according to Grow NYC, an environmental group, only 7.5 percent of New York’s waste comes from plastic shopping bags.
All the evidence points to another harebrained scheme that would satisfy a vocal but fringe constituency, but hurt the rest of New Yorkers. Many consumers won’t eschew plastic bags, but will buy fewer goods. That will hurt retailers, who are already having trouble staying afloat in N.Y.C., one of the most heavily taxed and regulated cities on the planet. The only bags the City Council should worry about are the ones they must be wearing over their heads, the ones that prevent them from seeing the true ills facing the city — dismal high school graduation rates, soaring pension costs and crumbling sewers and highways.