Ireland did it in 2002. San Francisco followed just four years later. It has since spread to cities around the world. Even Austin and Brownsville, Texas, have done it. Now it’s New York City’s turn, according to a panel of speakers assembled June 24 in Park Slope’s Greenwood Baptist Church: It’s time to get rid of plastic bags.
City Council Member Brad Lander (District 39) kicked off the panel discussion, explaining that plastic bags clog storm drains, harm wastewater treatment systems, and gum up the machines at waste and recycling centers—all of which costs the city extra money. He plans to introduce legislation addressing the problem later this year, and in the meantime he’s attending neighborhood meetings like this one in order to get the word out about the problems caused by plastic bags and the solutions that are available.
The Human Impacts Institute (HII) was one of many local organizations represented among the 90 or so attendees. The crowd showed strong support for exploring sustainable alternatives to plastic bags, single-use products whose brief lives as useful objects are overshadowed by the 1,000 years they’re capable of persisting in the environment—they spend much of that time tangled in the branches of trees, floating in waterways, harming delicate ecosystems, and playing a starring role in the detritus of both urban and rural landscapes.
The event was organized by the Green Party of Brooklyn, Sierra Club, No Impact Project, Sane Energy, PlasticBagLaws.org, and BagItNYC. Joining Lander on stage were attorney Jennie Romer, a central figure in California’s initiatives to ban plastic bags; Colin Beavan (aka, No Impact Man) of the No Impact Project; Carl Arnold, vice chair of the Sierra Club’s NYC chapter; and former Pennsylvania Congressman Peter Kostmayer, now Chief Executive Officer of the Citizens Committee for New York City.
In addition to outlining the environmental and financial arguments in favor of plastic bag restrictions (which range from voluntary programs to fees to outright bans), the group also addressed the arguments typically put forth in opposition to such restrictions. For instance, there is a misconception, said Romer, that plastic bags aren’t harmful as long as they’re recycled. In fact, she said, as a low-grade material, plastic bags are rarely recyclable and more often must be meticulously extracted from the recycling waste stream, where they tend to cause jams in the machines used for sorting. The group also addressed concerns that restrictions could place a burden on low-income communities, an apprehension they hope to dispel through public outreach over the next several months.
HII will be part of that outreach process, providing updates and explanations about how plastic bag restrictions will affect everyday life for New Yorkers. In the meantime, if you want to support the effort or learn more, here are several steps you can take to be a part of the process:
1) Visit Jennie Romer’s website, PlasticBagLaws.org, for a comprehensive history of plastic bag restrictions, fact sheets, links to research studies, and more.
2) Organize a screening. Several great documentaries address concerns about plastic bags. See some of them here.
Support the Effort:
1) Sign the BagItNYC petition.
2) Encourage your favorite retailer to show support for plastic bag restrictions.
3) Encourage NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn to support passage of pending legislation to phase out polystyrene food containers and packing materials (aka, Styrofoam) in NYC. The success of this legislation will provide needed political momentum for support of the plastic bag ban.
Nora Ankrum, Environmental Leadership Intern, Human Impacts Institute