“The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics,”

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published by the World Economic Forum, describes the unsustainable nature of today’s plastics industry and outlines a path by which the plastics industry could meet the ideals of a circular economy. I recently read this paper and feel it sheds an interesting light on efforts by the New York State legislature to prevent local governments from enacting fees on single-use bags. Most of the facts and figures behind the thoughts below come from that paper.

You know those free plastic bags you get at stores and restaurants? In truth, we all pay for those bags three times.

First, there are costs to be paid when petroleum is extracted to make the plastic. Besides the environmental costs of pumping oil, the production of plastic packaging increases demand for petroleum and thus increases the cost for all the other ways we use petroleum.

Second, after store owners pay for the bags, they pass the cost along to all customers in their store — even BYOBagers have to pay up!

Third, after plastic bags are used and thrown away, it takes centuries for them to break down and they never biodegrade. Meanwhile, as taxpayers and citizens, we pay to clean up litter and to maintain landfills that are overflowing. We also bear public health costs
when our waterways and oceans choke on plastic and when the chemicals in plastic work their way up the food chain.

Over their entire lifetimes, those free plastic bags come with pretty hefty costs.

With an eye to avoiding some of those costs, New York City recently passed a law that requires grocery stores and other retail establishments to charge a five cent fee for single use plastic (or paper) bags. When such fees have been implemented in other cities and
countries around the world, the result has been that plastic bag usage drops something like 60 percent (or even 90+ percent if the fees are higher). If the law goes into effect in New York City, it will surely have the same result.

Opponents of bag fees say that the fees are especially hard on poor people (even though SNAP participants will receive free bags) and they contribute to higher grocery costs for everyone. But these claims ignore the bigger picture. If people in NYC (or anywhere) use
60 percent less bags, they will reduce resource demand as well as long-term cleanup and environmental costs. Moreover, the fees rapidly instruct everyone on the beauty of re-usable bags. After everyone transitions to re-usable alternatives, everyone will enjoy
lower costs all around.

Do you think the upfront and follow-on costs we pay for plastic bags are insignificant? Here are some alarming statistics that were derived from research done by the United Nations Environment Programme:

After a short first-use cycle, 95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80–120 billion annually, is lost to the economy. A staggering 32% of plastic packaging escapes collection systems, generating significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital
natural systems such as the ocean and clogging urban infrastructure. The cost of such after-use externalities for plastic packaging, plus the cost associated with greenhouse gas emissions from its production, is conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually – exceeding the plastic packaging industry’s profit pool.

But after the New York City Council approved fees on single-use bags, legislation was initiated in the New York State Legislature to undermine the NYC law by not allowing any city in New York State to legislate bag fees.

Why would New York State do such a thing?

Two groups tend to oppose changing the status quo on how plastic bags are freely given out. One group is the plastics packaging industry, a subdivision of the petrochemicals industry, which uses its financial might to spend on lawyers, lobbyists and lies (aka
“public relations campaigns”) to defend its profits. (If the NYC law goes into effect, annual usage of bags in NYC is expected to drop from ten billion to three or four billion, so it’s a reasonable business strategy to incur these expenses with the aim of
preventing lost sales.)

The other group that opposes the change is our fellow citizens, neighbors and friends, who do not want change forced on them, which is understandable. Why should we change? For too long we have overlooked the simple problem that plastic does not biodegrade, and
therefore the burden it presents to our biosphere is cumulatively increasing. If this is hard to comprehend, please ponder what would happen if we were no longer allowed to send our plastic away with the garbage, but were required to store it all at home and pass on our collection of plastic to our children, who would pass on their plastic (along with our plastic) to their children, and so forth. This is not the world anyone I know wants to live in. Because plastic doesn’t go away, it’s important to make a change — and single-use plastic bags are the easiest place to start.

A growing number of concerned citizens believe the nickel fee is a common sense change that benefits everyone, but they face a big corporate interest with outsized political influence and other citizens who may be unaware of all the advantages. Fees on bags may not
be the right change for every community at this time. But when the elected officials of New York City decide now is the time for their city to make a change, why should New York State officials get in the way?

Fortunately, the NYS legislation died when this year’s session ended, but it could be resurrected in the future.

When you hear news reports about plastic bag issues going forward, please be aware of the perspective being expressed. Is the reporter or politician narrowly focusing on “free” bags or are they addressing the overall costs of the bags? Are they looking at the short-term
convenience of bags, or at the long-term, cumulative, non-biodegradable mess caused by bags?

I encourage everyone to look at the big picture and take into consideration what your descendants would like you to do. If you share my concern about this issue, here is what you can do:

Stop taking bags from stores, find reusable bags that you love, and avoid single-use plastic as much as possible.

Sign the online petition about this issue sponsored by Senator Liz Krueger.

Share this information with family and friends.

Thank you.

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