New York City’s plastic-bag addiction

On my way home yesterday evening, I ran by the grocery store to pick up a few things. I ended up buying seven items:

The items I bought on my run grocery store.
The items I bought on my run to the grocery store.
  1. A carton of eggs
  2. A 2-pound (1-kilogram) bag of frozen peas
  3. A red pepper
  4. A green pepper
  5. Half and half
  6. Chocolate milk for me
  7. Strawberry milk for my daughter

(The chocolate and strawberry milk were on sale for what I deem an acceptable price, so I thought they would make a nice treat for the end of a long day.)

I normally take a reusable bag to the store with me, but since this was a spur-of-the-moment trip I had no bag on me. How many plastic bags did the checker think I needed to conveniently carry my items home with me? Two? Three? No and nope.

Try six.

That’s right: my seven items were packed into six bags. Let me rephrase that: they were packed into three bags, which were then dutifully double bagged, just like every plastic grocery-store bag in New York City.

That’s the thing: in the five boroughs, virtually every checker at every grocery store double bags everything. Even Trader Joe’s, sometimes regarded as an example of ecoconsciousness because it eschews plastic bags, double bags using paper. It doesn’t matter how large or small the purchase: even a toothbrush will be bagged and that bag placed into another. I guess for fear that the handles on the cheaply-made plastic bags will rip? Or that they’ll dig into your fingers as you’re walking down the street? Both of which are of course a concern with such weighty items as toothbrushes and breakfast cereal.

And they do it no matter the customer or how you got there. I can sort of understand wanting to make sure bags won’t rip or be uncomfortable for people walking some distance. But the grocery store I was at yesterday evening has a large parking lot out in front; chances are I drove. (For the record, I didn’t.) Which makes half a dozen bags for half a dozen items even more ridiculous, when chances are the maximum distance they’ll be carried is from the checkout line to the car and then from the car to the house.

(I will note that another local grocery-store chain, Stop & Shop, recently introduced sturdier plastic bags and no longer double bags items.)

New York City’s recycling rate is an abysmal 15%. Even sprawling, car-dependent, bane-of-the-environment Los Angeles recycles 65% of its garbage.

Fortunately, I’m conscientious with my plastic bags, and they will either be reused or recycled. They will not end up in a landfill or, perhaps worse, on the street. But how many bags in New York City do? As I walk the sometimes trash-strewn streets of this city, it is remarkable how much of the litter consists of plastic grocery bags, used once and then tossed out, where they may remain for the next 500 to 1,000 years. Then again, given this city’s abysmal recycling rate—a mere 15% of our trash is recycled—that’s not too surprising. (Even Los Angeles, a city New Yorkers are keen to look down their noses at as hopelessly sprawling and car-dependent, recycles 65% of its trash.)

Washington, D.C., where I used to live, had a similar problem, and far too many of the bags were ending up in the pollution-choked Anacostia River. So the city decided to do something about it: from 1 January 2010, businesses in the city that sell food or alcohol have been required to charge five cents for every disposable paper or plastic bag a customer receives. The business retains one or two cents, and the remaining three or four cents go to a fund to clean and protect the Anacostia.

After Washington, D.C., instituted a five-cent per-bag fee, the use of disposable bags in the city dropped by at least half.

The results have been remarkable. The fee—a mere nickel per bag—has led to widescale behavioral change throughout the nation’s capital. A recent survey found that 50% to 60% fewer disposable bags are being used, and two-thirds of District residents and businesses report seeing fewer bags as litter. A full four out of five Washingtonians report using fewer bags since the fee was implemented. Small change—in this case, a nickel—can lead to big change.

Which brings me back to the Big Apple—which comes, of course, double bagged. And it’s time to change that.

Photo by Ramin Bahrani/Ars Electronica via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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