New Yorkers not prepared for plastic bag ban

Nearby Jersey City implemented a similar plastic bag ban last year. (Kirsti Itameri/SFMN)

On March 1, New York will join the short list of states with bans on plastic carryout bags. Only California and Hawaii have state-wide bans aimed at reducing the proliferation of single-use plastics. New York’s ban is less than a week away, but many are unaware of it.

“I did not know that,” said Rohan Gurpaxani, 23, after being informed of it. He was taken aback by the news, but thought it was a “phenomenal” thing to do. “Obviously, it’s going to save a lot of aquatic life,” he said.

New York retailers will provide paper bags, for which most shoppers will pay five cents for. Three cents of the fee will go to an environmental protection fund and the rest will be spent on production of reusable bags.

“I don’t think there should be a charge only because I think people are less likely to buy [paper bags] and if they don’t, [their] alternative is just wasting other material [like plastic bags],” said Rachel Mar, 25.

New Yorkers use 23 million plastic bags annually, with a significant number ending up polluting the environment, particularly waterways. Plastic bags have a long lifespan, likely taking anywhere from 500 to 1000 years to decay completely. One of the most significant accumulations of plastic waste on Earth is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Located between Hawaii and California, it’s estimated to contain between 1.15 and 2.41 million tons of plastic.

But paper bags may not be a great option either. It takes as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does a plastic one and the process generates 70 percent more air pollutants, according to the Irish government.

“Paper bags suck,” chuckled Jean Gauthier, a French transplant to New York. Though he supports the ban on plastic bags because of how harmful they are, he’s not too keen on the idea of paper bags. “They’re not convenient to carry stuff,” he said.

Heather Johnson, executive director of Friends of the Bay, an environmental protection group in Oyster Bay, New York, recognized the disadvantages of paper bags and offered an alternative solution.

“Instead of using paper bags, it would be helpful if consumers could start using reusable bags, so paper bags would not be necessary. Most important is for us all to try to break the single-use plastic habit,” she said.

In 2019, Surfside, Florida initially voted on a ban of most-single used plastics, such as plastic bags, utensils and dinnerware.

The town then received a letter from the Florida Retail Federation — a lobbying group that represents retailers like Publix, Target and Walmart — suggesting that it could sue the town because state law prohibits local municipalities from regulating plastic bags. Surfside decided to overturn the ban. Only one commissioner, Tina Paul, voted against the repeal.

Sunny Isles Beach banned plastic straws and stirrers. The ban will take effect in three phases: informing businesses of the ban, a “warning phase” if they do not comply and, after a year, an “enforcement phase” with fines.

“Legislation is an effective way to make meaningful changes,” said Johnson. “Environmental organizations are often looking towards the local government for this, which does work. However, a state-wide ban on plastic bags has a larger impact, which is obviously a good thing.”

Johnson is hopeful about the New York ban and how citizens can change the world. “The best way to be better citizens is to stay educated and stay connected to the natural world,” she said. “This is our one and only planet and we need to be good stewards.”

Alexandra Yun is a senior, graduating in Spring 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She has interned for the South Florida News Service, now the South Florida Media Network. Upon graduation, she wants to venture out of Miami and live in New York, exploring different avenues of journalism.