There’s no polite way to say it: The ban on plastic shopping bags that took effect on Sunday is just plain dumb.
The law, the New York State Bag Waste Reduction Act (Environmental Conservation Law, Article 27, Title 28), outlaws the use of all “non-reusable” plastic bags by retailers, except as specifically exempted by the act.
The solons of Albany may have been victims of the same blinkered view many neophyte environmentalists have when it comes to plastic. It was a view I shared until I took a job in the late 1990s as a reporter covering commodity petrochemicals, including the downstream derivatives from which most plastics are made.
When I came to the beat, I was no friend of plastics or the companies that made them, and I’m still not an advocate. But I quickly realized that plastic is truly ubiquitous, and that the only way to avoid using it would be to revert to an 18th-century form of self-sufficiency few would want. Plastics figure in the manufacture or processing of products as unlikely as cloth, fruits and vegetables, and paper. Pick up anything, and chances are it either contains plastic, is packed in plastic or plastic was somehow used in its manufacture.
What the lawmakers appear to have wanted to ban were the thin bags, less than one-thousandth of an inch thick, used at most supermarket checkout counters. But the ban is so broad that many good alternatives were also nixed. And the number of exceptions to the ban is equally broad, so it is difficult to know whether the act will have any more than a merely cosmetic effect — if that.
According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, New Yorkers use about 23 billion plastic bags a year. But the DEC doesn’t say how big a dent the new law will make in that figure — and this is important, because the act exempts just about every other plastic bag available in supermarkets, including those used for meat, fish, bakery goods, pharmacy items, produce and the deli. Dry-cleaning, garbage and construction bags are exempt as well, as are those used for the millions of newspapers delivered across the state each day. The act names 11 specific exemptions.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo claims that eliminating the so-called T-shirt bags will save 12 million barrels of oil a year, without explaining how the figure was calculated or putting that figure in context. The U.S. uses more than 7 billion barrels of oil annually. And cutting out plastic shopping bags is similarly unlikely to have much of an impact on the roughly 24 million metric tons of polyethylene, or PE, consumed in the U.S. each year.
None of the alternatives to the low-density PE from which the offending bags are mostly made are great. Anyone who has ever seen the aftermath of a clear-cut forest can bear witness to the destructive power of the chainsaw. And paper bags are both thicker and much more expensive than plastic.
Many of the bags on sale last week as the ban took effect were made of a non-recyclable type of woven polypropylene. And although all the plastic bags I examined were made in the U.S., the reusable bags were made in China and Vietnam.
But paper is biodegradable, right? Well, yes . . . and no. While it does break down naturally, most garbage collected in the U.S. goes into landfills specifically designed to avoid degradation. They are lined with plastic, and layers of garbage alternate with layers of dirt to minimize the release of methane gas — a major contributor to greenhouse emissions.
Using the most modern equipment, PE bags are now virtually 100 percent recyclable. And the recycled resin can be turned back into the original product — not always the case with other types of plastics.
So what’s the answer?
The problem with T-shirt bags is that they are too thin to be durable. But thicker bags, with heavier handles, are both durable and recyclable. European retailers have been selling them at checkout counters for more than 40 years. I first encountered them in 1979, and for the 13 years that I lived in Europe, I routinely carried a reusable shopping bag in my pocket or knapsack. They cost about 25 cents in today’s money, and were so tough that a few of them are still in use in my home, 28 years after I moved back to the U.S. California, which has a much more robust recycling program than New York’s, has opted for the heavier PE bags, too.
We are never going to eliminate plastic, but we can learn to use it more intelligently. Bag manufacturers could have told our legislators all this — if they had been asked.
Timothy Denton is the senior editor of the Seaford and Wantagh Heralds. Comments about this column? Tdenton@liherald.com.