A Ban Whose Time Shouldn’t Come

“I suspect that the wise men and women up in Albany who thought of this brilliant idea don’t get to the supermarket that much,” read a letter published in this past week’s Hamodia.

The writer was referring to New York State’s new ban on plastic bags, and the impact it will have on people like her.

In approving the ban, set to go into effect next March, New York became the second state to impose such a rule; California banned plastic bags in 2016. Hawaii effectively has a statewide ban, since all its counties bar the use of plastic bags.

New York’s ban applies to most single-use plastic bags provided by supermarkets and other stores. Individual counties will have the option of charging five cents for paper bags, with two cents going to local governments and three cents to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

The justification for such bans is that plastic bags, like other non-biodegradables, are not good for the environment. When they are disposed of carelessly, they are an eyesore, lying in gutters and caught in tree branches; they clog drains; even in landfills they can release dangerous chemicals over time that can cause harm to plants and animals. In particular, when they end up in the oceans, they cause great damage to marine animals. And even plastics touted as biodegradable are implicated in such harm.

But it is important, and the mandate of elected officials, to balance larger concerns like environmental pollution with the daily life concerns of the people and communities they represent. And many of their constituents, particularly in certain communities, will be affected in a negative way by the new ban.

For better or worse, plastic bags, like cars and airplanes, have become part of normal contemporary life for many. And, like cars and airplanes, despite their downsides, they provide considerable benefits to those who use them. They are easy to carry, leak-proof and sturdier than paper bags.

As the letter-writer pointed out, “Even the paper bag my bakery provides for their hot challos on Fridays often rips on the way home, and challos weigh much less than many other grocery products.”

Paper bags, moreover, have a negative environmental impact as well. It takes four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as a plastic one, and paper has to come from trees, a natural resource that fights air pollution. Paper bags take up more space in landfills and, in fact, don’t break down any faster than plastic in landfills.

And reusable cloth bags, touted as the best alternative of all, are mixed blessings too. A study by the University of Arizona found that 50 percent of all reusable bags contained food-borne bacteria like salmonella, and 12 percent contained E. coli. Harmful bacteria can thrive in reusable bags unless users clean them properly after each use with soapy water that is at least 140 degrees, not something that most, or any, consumers will do. Some imported reusable bags have even been found to contain toxic lead.

So there is no magic bullet, or bag, here. And so what is left is that balancing of environmental harm against the needs and preferences of the public.

Rather than take the easy but drastic route of banning a long-used and valued product, there were and are other ways to address plastic bag pollution. New York streets are often strewn with all sorts of refuse, from aluminum cans to plastic packaging to pizza boxes and other terrestrial jetsam and flotsam. Plastic bags are a mere part of the eyesore, and our taxes pay for their removal. If streets are cleaned properly and often, plastic debris will not end up in drains or, from them, into waterways and oceans. Tightening regulations and services would go a long way toward lessening New York’s contribution to marine pollution — which is largely the product of China and Indonesia.

And technological solutions to chemicals leaking into the ground from landfills can and should be pursued — after all, plastic bags are the least of the dangerous materials dumped in landfills.

For now, though, families across the state, including those in our community, will be wise to begin stockpiling plastic bags over the coming months to use and reuse after the ban, which is only on stores, not individuals, takes effect.

And we can hope, though there’s not much reason for optimism, that New York’s legislature and leadership might come to realize in time that not only are there other ways to prevent plastic bag pollution but that the currently favored alternatives present problems of their own. And that their positions and votes on this issue didn’t do any favor to the hard-working men and women of this state.