Thinking Out of the Bag

It may be a consolation to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to know that he is not alone in his frustration with how to deal with the issue of plastic bags.

A task force established by the governor to formulate a recommendation for what to do about the estimated 23 billion plastic bags that New Yorkers dispose of every year in the garbage and in the streets, and that wind up in the trees and in the waterways, came up with eight options, but no firm recommendation.

The general reaction to the 88-page report, “An Analysis of the Impact of Single-Use Plastic Bags,” was to wrap it up and throw it away. In some environmentally-friendly manner, of course.

State Sen. Simcha Felder, the Brooklyn Democrat who led the battle to spare the overburdened residents of New York City from yet another tax, wisely said he was waiting for a “final decision” before commenting. After all, there is little purpose in commenting on a plan that does not exist.

But New York City Councilman Brad Lander, who sponsored the thwarted bag fee last February, did not wait. He was not impressed by the claim of Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Conservation and chair of the Plastic Bag Task Force, that “we’ve scoured the planet for some of the best ideas…”

“A high school student with internet access could have prepared that report,” Lander exclaimed. “It’s ridiculous. I mean, honestly, what I especially liked is that of the eight recommendations, two of them are ‘do nothing.’”

Governor Cuomo himself was not bubbling over with enthusiasm about the report. He mentioned it only in passing at his budget presentation on Tuesday, and his office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the matter.

But, as noted above, he is not alone in being unsure what to do. On the very same day as the state report came out, the European Union issued new plans to reduce its 26 million tons of plastic waste annually with an ambitious recycling program. Hanging over the EU was a prediction that if official dithering continues, over the next 30 years there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight.

But the Europeans aren’t rushing into anything either. “I’m open to this intriguing idea, but I’m not sure it is workable,” said Jyrki Katainen, EU Commission Vice President.

One option — not among New York’s eight — has been removed from the list of possibilities: sending it all on a slow boat to China. Germany was shipping about 10 percent of its plastic trash to China, but that country has had enough, and isn’t taking it anymore.

As in Europe, New York officialdom recognizes that the more time that goes by without a solution, the number of plastic bags piling up will only increase. New York City alone dumps tens of thousands of tons of plastic waste in landfills every month.

The suggested options that entail a fee, either on each bag or each transaction, should be rejected for the same reason that they were rejected in the first place — because it is unfair to impose another tax on the average shopper, who already struggles to make ends meet.

On the other hand, an outright ban on plastic bags is also absurd. The bags are extremely useful, to say the least, or they wouldn’t be ubiquitous; and many people working in the plastics industry would lose their jobs as a consequence of such environmentalist coercion.

Besides, the experience of other cities, such as Chicago, is not encouraging. Retailers there responded to a ban on thin bags by handing out thicker bags, which only increased the amount of waste.

An increase in consumer education, another of the task force’s options, is an innocuous enough approach, but not one that is likely to improve the bag-strewn landscape very much. There would be no harm, presumably, in teaching the public about the evils of plastic bags as an adjunct to some more practical solution.

While they’re working on a warning label (“plastic bags may be hazardous to the planet’s health”), it’s time for some thinking out of the box, or in this case, out of the bag.

One idea that deserves consideration would address the disadvantages of plastic bags — the flimsy things tear easily and don’t hold enough. Nobody is fond of shlepping a bunch of them home from the store, all too often losing the bet that they won’t rip apart before they get home.

The city can look into the feasability of distributing to each resident a reusable, large, waterproof cloth bag. Some could come equipped with wheels, which would make them far more transportable for people who cannot carry heavy packages. If these bags should catch on, many would quit the plastic bag habit voluntarily, without resort to a tax or a ban.

Another idea is to exempt grocery stores from charging sales tax on any purchases that are either delivered in boxes or taken home using a cloth bag. Here, too, the approach would be to offer the public an incentive to change behavior, rather than penalizing them for not doing so.

While there are far more pressing issues that state and local governments need to tackle, the plastic bag issue should be addressed — but in a fair and realistic method that does not amount to a new tax or hardship for consumers.