Last month I went down to visit my father and stepmother who live in the District of Columbia. My first morning there, I headed around the corner to get my morning tea at the Starbucks and a quick stop at the convenience store to pick up a few things I'd forgotten to bring with me (and some donuts for Dad).
At the 7-Eleven, I stared blankly at the screen as the cashier rang up my purchases. Then my eyes focused on one thing: a bag charge of ten cents. I hadn't even thought twice when she'd asked me if I wanted a bag. "Huh," I commented (did I mention I am NOT a morning person - even a late morning person?). "How long has this bag charge been around?"
"About three years," said the cashier.
I headed over to Starbucks and got my coffee, a breakfast sandwich and the pound of ground coffee beans my stepmother asked for. The barista asked if I wanted a bag. "No thanks," I said, and tucked it all into the bag I'd gotten from the 7-Eleven. One bag saved.
Back at the ranch, I told my Dad about my discovery of the bag charge. "Oh yeah," he said, "that's been around a while now. I didn't realize you didn't know about it."
"How are you handling it?" I asked curiously. Dad is in great shape, but senior citizens aren't known for their desire for change or inconvenience, and being charged for bags that used to be free isn't something that seems convenient OR like the status quo.
"You know, I like it," Dad said.
"Yeah. We drive around (because despite the Metro, DC is very much a driving city) with a couple of these reusable bags that the grocery store gave us in the trunk of each car, and it's not a big deal. Plus, it's really cut down on plastic bag litter. And if I have to, I can always pay the ten cents. But I usually don't have to."
What struck me most was my father's comment about the lack of plastic bag litter. I think we've all seen plastic bags stuffed into planters, flying around in the wind and caught in trees. Bags that benignly end up preserved forever in our landfills or more worse: that end up in our waste water ( potentially clogging up rain sewers); can get into our rivers and wash up on the shores; or worst, get out into the ocean where larger sea life can eat or get stuck in them and die. Free-ranging plastic bags journey to join one of the several oceanic gyres of plastic waste that have congregated with the currents in many parts of the world.
In economic terms, litter is an externality. That is the term we use for something that affects many people as a result of actions created by a few. In this case, plastic bags which are given for free to shoppers end up affecting many more people as litter in our public places. It's sad but many people - for reasons of convenience, spite, or accident - fail to properly dispose of plastic bags. And everyone, polluter and non-polluter alike, pays the cost of cleanup (sanitation, parks & recreation staff, supplemental cleanup such as the Doe Fund, and countless hours of building superintendants, plus volunteer hours of generous citizens).
Moreover, for the moment, more than 99% of plastic bags used in New York City are going to landfills. Aside from being able to bring plastic bags to certain grocery stores and retail stores as mandated by state law, there is nowhere to recycle plastic bags. The city specifically says not to put them in the curbside recycling (though I do). And who wants to hoard them at home to shlep them to the grocery store anyway?
I speculate that flimsy plastic bags do not recycle well and therefore recycling companies do not see profit in accepting them. That means plastic bags are an end product that - even if reused once or twice - have no resurrection factor. The free market is a long way away from bringing them back into the resource chain.
Plastic bags - plastic grocery-type bags in particular - have no long term value. They have a maximum of two uses - to ferry a set of groceries from your local store to your house, and maybe to pick up some dog poop. Ironically, dog poop would return safely to the earth if we put it in a compost pile but because we put it in a non-biodegradable plastic bag and toss it into a landfill, it will probably not biodegrade for decades. Or - another irony - you could use the plastic bag to stuff full of paper (yes I have done this, when I've run out of Whole Foods paper grocery bags) to put in the curbside recycling!
Enter the idea of just not using plastic bags in New York City. If you use them, you have to pay towards the cost of cleaning them up. Easy as that.
Naturally there are people who will oppose this for monetary reasons. The most obvious group will be manufacturers of plastic bags for grocery and retail stores, who will see their revenues fall when shoppers opt not to take a plastic bag, leading stores to cut their orders of these bags. To them I say: sorry. Figure out how to make a widely available recycling program and we'll talk.
I expect regular people to object too. I expect their reason will be something along the lines of: "You're taking away another thing I used to get for free!" To them I say: the bags were never free. You pay for them twice: once when you bought something at a store and again when you pay taxes to have them cleaned up off the streets and out of parks. You pay for them in the time you spend volunteering to clean up your favorite parks and beaches. Plastic bags are convenient, but what price should we pay for that convenience? Should it be the oceans, and our public parks and streets? Our landfills which, once filled, cannot be used for decades? Should it be loss of the ingredients of those plastic bags - which could have made up something much more useful - like school desks or chairs? Just so we could carry something around for an hour?
I carry a lot on my back as I move about the city, but starting tomorrow I am putting another thing in my backpack - a reusable bag that packs down into a corner of itself. It was a promotional item from a seminar at Google. When it wears out I have another just like it ready to go. I won't always be able to avoid using plastic bags, but I'll try. And when (not if - I'm pretty sure this bag charge will pass) we have to pay for our plastic bags, I'll do it when I need to. And then - sorry, Department of Sanitation, consider it a civil protest - I'm putting it my curbside recycling.