Should Plastic Bags Be Banned Everywhere?

Should Plastic Bags Be Banned Everywhere?

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When you buy something in a store, do you rely on the store’s plastic bags to get your items home? Or do you bring your own reusable bag — or just skip the bag entirely? For residents of New York state, the store-provided plastic bag won’t be an option any more as of March 1.

What do you think about New York’s new law? Is something similar in effect where you live? If not, do you wish it were? Why or why not? How concerned are you about the negative environmental effects of errant bags that end up in animal habitats and landfills?

In “Get Ready, New York: The Plastic Bag Ban Is Starting,” Anne Barnard writes about the law and its intended outcomes:

New York is banning the distribution of single-use plastic bags statewide on Sunday, a move with the ambitious goal of reducing the billions of discarded bags that stream annually into landfills, rivers and oceans.

The law forbids most businesses from handing out the thin bags that are ubiquitous in supermarkets, bodegas and boutiques, making New York the third state to bar the bags after California, where a ban has already changed the way millions of people shop, and Oregon, where one took effect last month.

If successful, the transition could spur a cultural sea change as significant as the end of smoking in bars, or the shift in attitudes ushered by seatbelt laws: Once optional, buckling up is now so automatic for most people that it happens almost unconsciously.

New Yorkers currently use 23 billion plastic bags each year, state officials say, many of which end up as one of the most problematic forms of garbage. They blow across streets and become caught in trees. They harm birds and marine creatures. They clog sorting machines, making recycling them cumbersome.

The article goes on to describe successes in other places that have worked to decrease the use of plastic bags:

Measures in other countries and localities have significantly reduced plastic bag use, and a study in Washington found a 5-cent bag fee there had cut down on plastic pollution in waterways. The laws — including a de facto ban in Hawaii, where all counties forbid such bags — also aim to address climate change by reducing the planet-warming emissions from making the petroleum-based bags.

California’s ban led to a 72 percent drop in plastic bag use. Although the law passed narrowly in a referendum — and opinions on it remain divided — implementation was relatively smooth.

Not all plastic bags are subject to the ban:

There are exceptions to the bag ban: Plastic can be used for takeout food; uncooked meat or fish and other products that could contaminate items; weighed produce; and prescription drugs. Newspaper bags, garment bags and bags sold in bulk, like trash or recycling bags, are also exempt.

Paper bags are still allowed, and local governments can impose a 5-cent fee for each one a customer takes. The cities and counties that opt in to that fee will keep 2 cents per bag to spend on programs aimed at distributing reusable bags, and the remaining 3 cents will go to New York’s Environmental Protection Fund.

Customers on food stamps and public assistance will be exempt from paper-bag fees.

The article notes that the new law has some opposition:

There, of course, are skeptics of the plastic ban, especially in New York City, where most people do not drive to supermarkets and shops. A bedrock feature of life in the city is running errands on the spur of the moment, or making impulse buys while walking or using public transportation.

“This is going to be the worst thing to happen to this store,” said Sal Husain, who manages a C-Town grocery store in the Inwood section of Manhattan. “It’s OK to protect the environment, but there’s going to be a lot of problems with customers.”

…. Across the street, Fatih Demir has been selling fruits for the past 15 years from a stand pitched below a white canopy. Most of his business comes from subway riders heading to and from the A train, he said.

“Our customers keep asking, ‘What’s going to happen?’” he said. “The woman who sells next to me keeps asking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ People don’t have the time to prepare for this stuff. This is America, where people most value their time.”

However, other New Yorkers have embraced the ban:

In some ways, the transition has already begun, as eco-conscious New Yorkers have voluntarily adopted reusable bags and the stores cater to them. For some shoppers and stores, bags emblazoned with slogans and images have become a fashion statement, a method of virtue signaling and even an economic opportunity.

That transition was on display on Thursday in Manhattan. Some residents could be seen trying to untangle bundles of loaded plastic bags spinning between their fingers. Others gripped reusable totes with both hands or pushed hand carts stuffed with both plastic and reusable bags.

Sylvie Kande, 62, of Harlem, was carrying paper bags out of a Whole Foods Market in Midtown. She said the ban was a good idea.

“It’s been done already in countries all around the world, and if it’s done there, it could be done here,” Ms. Kande said. “Everybody has to make sacrifices. And I know this is much easier for the bourgeoisie than it is for the working class, and it’s going to take some time. But we have to do it. This is an important transition.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • To what degree do you agree with Ms. Kande who stated that no longer using single-use plastic bags is an “important transition”?

  • Do you think the ban will motivate shoppers to bring their own bags to stores? Do you and your family tend to use reusable bags? What are the pros and cons of embracing this practice?

  • Some people think that the ban will be more of a hardship on working class people — such as those who walk instead of get around in cars or those who rely on public transportation? What do you think? In light of this, should the ban be selectively enforced? Why or why not?

  • The article mentions that some people like plastic bags because they reuse them at home for various purposes. Does this happen in your house? If so, how are these bags used?

  • You read about the types of single-use bags as well as purchases that are not subject to the ban. Do you think each of these exemptions is sensible? Explain. Do the exceptions reduce the ban’s effectiveness, in your opinion?

  • A related interactive notes that in New York City, plastic bags “have become part of the city’s visual landscape, the kind of everyday objects so pervasive that they seem invisible.” Look at the bag designs in the collection. Do you think plastic bags tell us something about the time and place in which they are or were used? If so, what?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.