The Fight Over Plastic Bags Is About a Lot More Than How to Get Groceries Home
Photographs by Bobby Doherty
Lauren Kuby had a simple ambition: She wanted to get something done. Kuby works by day at a sustainability institute that's part of Arizona State University in Tempe, but last year she decided to run for City Council. President Obama had called for state and local action in his State of the Union address in 2015, encouraging municipalities to act as laboratories for progressive change, and Kuby took his words to heart. After she was sworn in to her new council seat in January, she started looking for a project to take on. She quickly found one: plastic bags.
You are no doubt familiar with plastic bags — you probably own several dozen of them right now, likely folded in a drawer, or crammed under your sink, or stuffed inside other, larger plastic bags. (A singular feature of the plastic bag is that it's one of the few pieces of refuse that can, cannibalistically, contain itself.) Because if you are a typical New Yorker, you go through roughly 620 single-use plastic bags a year. If that figure sounds high, consider this: It's about two a day. Now think about the last 24 hours of your life. Did you get a plastic bag at the deli? At Fairway? Did a bag come wrapped around your Seamless order? All of the above? In a year, New York City as a whole manages to go through 5.2 billion single-use plastic bags. That's about 10,000 bags a minute — the vast majority of which end up as landfill.
Tempe's population is just 168,000, yet it goes through at least 50 million plastic bags a year. So Kuby started looking at other cities to see how they've dealt with bags. In 2000, when Mumbai discovered that plastic bags were clogging storm drains and exacerbating flooding during monsoon season, it banned them altogether. Plastic bags have also been banned in Bangladesh, Taiwan, Kenya, Rwanda, and Mexico City. By most accounts, these bans were accommodated and even embraced by locals.
Tempe, however, never had a chance to implement any bag legislation because, in April, the Arizona State Legislature passed SB 1241, a health-care bill with a curious amendment that declared that no city or town may "impose a tax, fee, assessment, charge or return deposit … for auxiliary containers." In an unexpected, Dr. Seussian twist, Arizona had preemptively banned the ban: You ban bags? We'll ban bag bans! Arizona is not the first state to enact a ban ban; Florida did so in 2008, and Missouri and Texas are investigating similar legislation.
Proponents of preemptively banning the bag ban argue that local bans create a confusing hodgepodge of regulation and that environmental fears over plastic bags are overblown. Others see the skirmish as part of a larger war: The unending fight to combat government tyranny and protect the American Way. Some commentators have even connected efforts to regulate plastic bags to a conspiracy involving Agenda 21, a U.N. sustainability initiative that's become a focus of fears about the advent of one-world control. Of a bag ban enacted (and subsequently repealed) in Dallas, Glenn Beck, noted Agenda 21–ologist and famously sensitive barometer of societal cataclysm, warned his radio listeners: "You have got to stand up for little things like the plastic-bag thing … If I want to use a plastic bag, I will use a plastic bag … Fascists ban things. What are we doing?"
What Kuby hadn't realized is that in attempting to address the tens of thousands that Tempe spends annually disposing of discarded plastic bags, she'd stumbled into a larger fight. It's a battle being waged across the country — and one that's about to open its newest front in New York: Mayor Bill de Blasio, who'd promised a bag ban in his campaign platform, is currently considering how, and whether, to tackle the issue. The battle is not just being fought over the fate of a familiar modern convenience but over, for one side, our last vestiges of freedom and, for the other, the future of planet Earth. And fluttering above this battlefield like the tattered banner of a besieged army, amid a haze of misinformation, counterarguments, and money, money, money, you'll find a single, flimsy, humble plastic bag.
Plastic bags are amazing. You can carry your groceries in them. You can use one to line your bathroom trash can. You can put one on your head as an impromptu rain bonnet. You can quickly and cleanly pick up dog shit. You can even thank a plastic bag in your Oscar speech, as Alan Ball once did, when he concluded the thank-yous for his Best Screenplay award for American Beauty: "And finally, that plastic bag in front of the World Trade Center so many years ago, for being whatever it is that inspires us to do what we do." American Beauty, of course, contains perhaps the single most famous appearance of a plastic bag in the entire cultural corpus: a scene in which a disaffected character watches a video of a plastic bag dancing in the wind and declares, "Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world."
The single-use plastic grocery bag, which was born about 50 years ago, is the answer to a question no one was asking and the solution to a problem that didn't exist. Back in the 1960s, not many people were wondering, How can I possibly carry my stuff around?, since people had been carrying their stuff around uneventfully for millennia — in cloth bags, burlap sacks, leather pouches, and, once upon a time, dried-out bull scrota. What some people were asking — petrochemical companies, most notably, since plastic is manufactured from by-products of petroleum and natural gas — was: "What else in the world can be made out of plastic?"
In 1962, a Swedish inventor, Sten Thulin, filed a patent for a thin, plastic bag, folded and made in such a way as to provide improbable strength and durability. Consumers were initially resistant to replacing their familiar paper bags, but by the early 1980s, national grocery chains were subbing paper for plastic, largely because plastic was cheaper: These days, the cost is one to two cents per bag, as opposed to six to eight cents for paper bags. The ascent of the plastic grocery bag, ironically, was applauded by many environmentalists, given that plastic didn't require the consumption of trees.
But the heyday of plastics as a perceived modern miracle was surprisingly brief. In 1955, Life magazine published a story titled "Throwaway Living," announcing that, thanks to the convenience of disposable plastic items, the average American had been freed from domestic drudgery. The accompanying photo showed a Cleaver-esque family tossing disposable items in the air like confetti: "The objects flying through the air in this picture would take 40 hours to clean — except no housewife need bother." By 1967, however, Benjamin Braddock's neighbor in The Graduate was passing on his famously chilling career advice: "Plastics!" Once the plastic grocery bag arrived in stores about ten years later, it seemed less like a miracle than like just another plastic thing to be absorbed into our increasingly plasticized lives. Homeless women became "bag ladies"; plastic bags picked up the derogatory nickname "Italian suitcase." In her hit "Firework," Katy Perry sings: "Do you ever feel / Like a plastic bag / Drifting through the wind / Wanting to start again?" Plastic bags have become symbols of the quotidian, the boring, the grindingly mundane.
They've also become a problem. They're a problem for city sanitation departments, because they're so light and aerodynamic, which makes them a particularly pernicious litter nuisance when they're blown out of trash receptacles into trees, gutters, fences, and parks. Environmentalists dislike them because they often end up on beaches and coastal waters, endangering marine life. They've also become a target for anyone who's generally concerned that we've reached a point in human history when manufacturing a brand-new item that's intended to be used for, on average, 12 minutes, then discarded to linger more or less forever in a landfill, seems like a totally routine thing to do. If nothing else, the raw numbers are staggering. The world goes through more than a trillion bags a year. All this prompted a U.N. undersecretary-general to declare that bags "should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere" because "there is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere."
But it's not like plastic bags are that much worse than other plastic products. In a sense, plastic bags have become a victim of their own mundanity. Cars are an environmental problem, too, but few people are suggesting an outright ban on cars, because people love their cars and a world without cars is hard to imagine. Not so for plastic bags: Everyone uses them but nobody loves them, and they're easily replaced with other kinds of bags. Which is precisely why they've become such a fitting symbol of a striking modern dilemma: They're a ubiquitous convenience that's not essential, that no one's truly enamored of, yet one from which we can't seem to extricate ourselves. Of all the perils facing the planet, plastic bags seem like an easy one to fix. But we can't even do that.
"I'm not really involved in that many things," says Don Williams, who runs the website stopthebagban.com. But when his hometown of San Jose, California, passed a plastic-bag ban three years ago, "I thought, This is crazy. I mean, a bunch of us were pulling our hair out." So Williams started a mailing list for people who were interested in opposing the bag ban, which he says now boasts 175 to 200 people. On his site, Williams tackles and dismisses all the arguments in favor of banning, charging for, or otherwise regulating plastic bags. In part, he does this because he's a fan of the convenience. But mostly it's because he's suspicious of what he calls "a greener-than-thou kind of thing," which, for him, is fueled by "the typical elitist attitude that looks down on the common people." In his experience, the common people want free plastic bags.
"You could hire ten to 20 workers for a fraction of the money they spend on advancing these bans," he says, "and their whole job every day could be to go pick up, like, five bags each." Problem solved. He also notes that plastic bags may be a litter concern, but there's all kinds of garbage in his local creek. "There's mattresses, there's tires — so are we banning mattresses? Are we banning tires? They found a dead body in the creek. I wanted to write to my councilmember to say, 'Hey, you need to pass a ban on dead bodies.' " For Williams, living in bag-free San Jose (where it turns out there is, in fact, an existing ban on the deliberate creation of dead bodies) must feel a bit like serving in the Resistance while living in Vichy France. I asked him what he uses to transport his own groceries, even as he fights the good fight online. He explained that he orders custom-made plastic bags by the boxful, each with ONE SAFE CLEAN CONVENIENT CONTRABAND PLASTIC BAG printed on one side and I CHOOSE PLASTIC printed on the other. "I take them to the grocery store. I hand them out to people in line. It's like contraband. They look around — they're like, 'Are we allowed to use these?' " As for his wife, she uses reusable bags.
Among all the organizations with various homespun names like Bag the Ban and the American Progressive Bag Alliance, Williams's is the rare one that isn't funded, in some way, by the plastics industry. Understandably, plastic-bag manufacturers have reacted swiftly to efforts to regulate bags — after all, even the cigarette, a product with no practical purpose that has been proved to kill people who use it, is not facing calls for an outright ban. So lobby groups like the American Chemistry Council have fought back with anti-bag-ban messaging of their own, as well as aggressively pursuing lawsuits, funding referendums, and sponsoring petitions to overturn local bans already in place.
Here are a few of their arguments. Plastic bags, they claim, are more ecologically friendly than paper — because paper bags weigh more, require more resources to create and transport, and take up more space in the landfill. (Paper bags don't, however, pose the same litter risk, have a much shorter life span, and are recycled at a much higher rate.) Reusable bags, they say, are both unsafe and unpatriotic — because bacteria might collect in them and many reusable bags are manufactured in China. Also, they contend, a mandatory fee on plastic bags — such as a five-cent fee introduced in Washington, D.C., in 2010 — is a tax grab that disproportionately affects the poor. (One paradox of the pro-bag position is having to argue that plastic bags are a valuable commodity that people nonetheless aren't willing to pay a few cents for.) Plastic bags, they argue, are 100 percent recyclable — at least in theory. However, most cities, including New York, don't accept film plastic (i.e., plastic bags) in their existing curbside recycling programs, and bag-return programs at stores are not very successful. Even by the industry's own optimistic estimate, just 15 percent of bags are returned for recycling. (Environmentalists typically put this figure at lower than 5 percent.) Which means at least 85 percent of a trillion bags are left to find their way in the world, over their subsequent 1,000-or-so-year life span.
For Mark Daniels, the chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance and a senior vice-president of sustainability at Novolex, one of the largest manufacturers of plastic bags in the world, the argument is even simpler. "The environmental-activist community has basically hijacked the debate and used this as their fundraising tool," he says. So, for example, environmentalists might show you a sad photo of a turtle eating a shredded-up plastic bag (which it likely tried to eat because it mistook the floating bag for a jellyfish), but can they tell you exactly how many turtles actually die from eating plastic bags? And how many dead turtles should mean that you can't tote your groceries home in a free plastic bag? In addition, he'd like you to know that Novolex recently spent $30 million on a new plant in Indiana specifically designed to recycle plastic bags. Novolex also sends out educational DVDs to places like Walmart, where there is now an initiative called "Think 6" that encourages baggers to place six, not four, items in each bag. "We're very much trying to create an equilibrium," Daniels says, "so that the amount of plastic bags is the correct amount." Now, if only there were a way to agree on what the "correct" amount of plastic bags might be.
The nadir of the plastic bag's reputation, at least in certain circles, may have occurred on Wednesday, July 18, 2007, at eight in the morning. That's when 15 Whole Foods in the New York area offered a $15 reusable canvas tote, commissioned by an environmental activist group and designed by Anya Hindmarch, that read I AM NOT A PLASTIC BAG. The bag presented a canny opportunity for performative rectitude: a reusable bag that publicly announced its own virtue. Naturally, it was a huge hit.
Only 20,000 such bags were offered for sale in New York, so they were snapped up and soon appeared on eBay for prices up to $300. People miffed by the bag's haughty sentiment began sporting competing bags, including one that read I AM NOT A SMUG TWAT. Soon, gleeful reports surfaced that the Hindmarch bags had been manufactured in China by low-cost labor and weren't organic. Hindmarch counterclaimed that the carbon cost of shipping the bags overseas had been offset by the purchase of carbon credits. In hindsight, l'affaire Hindmarch illustrates the confusing backlash that can greet any well-intentioned ecologically minded gesture. The conundrums — carbon credits! China! — can lead to a kind of ethical paralysis, which might well send you running back to your familiar plastic bags. Or running to stick your head inside a plastic bag.
A more significant death knell for the plastic bag, however, occurred earlier, in August 1997, when a seafarer named Charles Moore discovered what's come to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's a collection of plastic in the Pacific Ocean that is, depending on whom you ask, the size of Texas, or two Texases, or the entire continental USA. The patch is notable because, on the one hand, it's hard not to be alarmed by the phrase "an island of plastic the size of Texas in the middle of the ocean." On the other hand, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't actually like what most people envision. It's not an enormous floating mound of Tide bottles and toothbrushes. It's barely visible from a boat. That doesn't mean it's not a problem. Unlike paper, which biodegrades, plastic photodegrades, meaning it breaks down into ever-smaller pieces when exposed to UV rays in sunlight. So the so-called Garbage Patch is really more like a soup made up of millions of tiny flakes of plastic, floating just below the surface of the water, soaking up toxins, and looking to fish an awful lot like food.
Plastic bags, to be clear, are not a big part of the garbage patch — they're too insubstantial to wind up way out in the middle of the ocean. But the news of the patch was a turning point in how people think about plastics and the planet — it felt like a bill coming due. It's like the Garbage Patch of Dorian Gray: an ugly, previously hidden illustration, dragged down from the planet's ecological attic, of the true cost of our perfect plastic lives.
Kathryn Garcia, New York's commissioner of Sanitation, is talking about carrots and sticks. "We're doing a lot on the promotional side," she explains, sitting at the large board table in her office downtown. "We're working with City Hall and the mascot Birdie [the city's GreeNYC mascot], giving out Birdie's Bags. We're trying to use carrots — but occasionally, to get everyone to change, we need something more." Garcia is currently in the middle of a fight to bring some sort of plastic-bag action to New York. She is less professionally concerned with plastic bags in faraway oceans than she is with the 1,700 tons that New Yorkers throw away each week. New York pays an estimated $10 million a year to transport single-use bags, both plastic and paper, to out-of-state landfills — and that doesn't cover the money spent to pick them up as loose litter. Recently, I visited Manhattan Beach, a sliver of sand off Sheepshead Bay, early on the morning after Fourth of July weekend, and, sure enough, were I an alien, I'd have assumed the beach was some sort of plastic-bag farm, ready for harvest.
As a question of civic policy, the plastic-bag debate would seem to be a perfect one for contemporary New York, seeing as it resides precisely at the crossroads of bloodless Bloombergian autocratic problem-solving and de Blasian firebrand progressivism. Yet New York has continually lagged behind other cities and countries on the issue; for example, China, which is not exactly thought of as in the environmental vanguard, banned free plastic bags in 2008. That's the same year that Mayor Bloomberg floated the notion of a six-cent fee on grocery bags, but it went nowhere. Currently, several City Council members are pushing for a ten-cent fee on plastic bags. But no legislation has been enacted. Bertha Lewis, a consultant to Mayor de Blasio and the head of the Black Leadership Action Coalition, wrote an editorial for the Gotham Gazette arguing that the bag fee "is counterintuitive, and hurts the working class and small-business owners that make our city strong." Lewis was later asked by Capital New York to account for the fact that her foundation has received payments from the American Progressive Bag Alliance — that's Mark Daniels's group — and she responded, "That's insulting. I think it is absolutely just the most egregious character assassination ever." Elsewhere, the argument has fallen along predictable sectarian lines: "Ten Cents a Bag? That's About Right," opined the Times. "Trash This Tax," bleated the Post.
The plastic-bag debate as a whole, though, highlights how New York exists as a kind of paradox: a self-consciously progressive city (certainly by national standards) that nonetheless, through political inertia or a weirdly proud embrace of civic dysfunction, has a difficult time supporting progressive policies. We, the populace, have proved both forward-looking and stubbornly resistant to change. Thanks to the once-divisive smoking ban, we've managed to live happily without our romantically smoke-clogged restaurants and bars for more than a decade. Yet a new bike lane can spark a fistfight. This is the city, after all, in which countless bureaucrats toiled tirelessly to rid the subways of graffiti, yet now we sit around and recall it wistfully. New York can seem at times like a vibrant laboratory for social progress, at others like a giant sclerotic machine that's barely able to function, let alone improve. And the most insignificant detritus of daily life can take on hallowed status: Reusable versions of both the iconic deli Greek coffee cup and, yes, the I ♥ NY plastic bag are enshrined at the MoMA gift shop. The plastic bag, the throwaway coffee cup — not to mention overflowing garbage cans, sky-high rents, crammed subways, grinding commutes, subway rats, sidewalk roaches, and noxious smells — are all familiar by-products, even totems, of our romanticized go-go New York lifestyle. We don't solve these problems; we survive them. We're 8 million harried people crammed together. We can barely make it through the week, let alone be expected to save the world.
Recycling is a happy word. And recycling, in theory, seems like a cheery civic virtue designed for our common betterment, but, in practice, it's a business like anything else. Sims Municipal Recycling, which contracts with the city to handle our recycling, has its main facility on the 30th Street Pier, near Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Above the ceaseless clatter of cans falling through three stories of sorting machines, Thomas Outerbridge, the facility's general manager, stands on a catwalk and points at what's below: "That I can sell, and that I can sell," he says, gesturing toward piles of scrap metal and bundles of reclaimed plastic bottles. Dirty plastic bags, however, are hard to sell. Since plastic bags are so insubstantial, they're just as likely to get tangled up in the recycling facility's machinery, causing expensive shutdowns, as they are to be bundled up and processed to be sold. Their current worth, he says, is "somewhere between two cents a pound and landfill." (As for so-called biodegradable plastic bags, they're kind of a nonstarter, at least for environmental purposes, because they typically end up in a landfill, and nothing effectively biodegrades in a landfill, not even food.)
It's true that clean plastic grocery bags are theoretically recyclable, just like any other plastic resin, but, as Outerbridge says, " 'theoretically recyclable' doesn't mean anything to me. There's either a market for it or there's not." As a recycled product, film plastic is very hard to process (because it's so light) and very hard to clean. This is why, technically, you're not supposed to include plastic bags in your curbside recycling in New York.
It's also theoretically possible to build an entirely new recycling infrastructure that recycles clean plastic bags — witness Novolex's $30 million recycling plant. But anti-bag activists argue that the only reason companies like Novolex promote bag recycling is that it makes consuming plastic bags more palatable and helps assuage the guilt consumers feel. It's not just activists who say this. In an interview with Susan Freinkel for her 2011 book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, Roger Bernstein of the American Chemistry Council explained why the plastics industry has invested so much in promoting recycling. Concerns around plastic products, he says, can be divided into "fear issues" and "guilt issues." And recycling, he says, functions as "a guilt eraser."
Jennie Romer is a lawyer from California who moved to New York three years ago hoping to work pro bono with the city on plastic bags. A few years back, she'd gotten involved in San Francisco's fight to ban bags, and she's since become, somewhat accidentally, the country's leading expert in plastic-bag law. Her anti-bag activism has earned her backlash from both sides. "I get a lot of tea-party-esque emails, but I also get pushback from environmentalists who say, 'There are bigger things to spend your time on.' But this is a thing I chose because it is small. Something like climate change — that's really daunting. With this, you can see a difference."
For New York, Romer favors a ten-cent fee. "With a ban, you're saying, 'You can't have this thing anymore,' " she says. "But with a fee, consumers are presented with a choice: 'Is it worth it to you to purchase this bag?' " In Ireland, after the government imposed a 15-cent fee in 2002, bag usage fell by 94 percent — in part because, as a reporter for the Times noted, "Plastic bags became socially unacceptable — on par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after your dog."
That last point may hint at another coming shift. Whether New York adopts a ban, a fee, or does nothing — in short, whether plastic bags go the way of smoke-filled restaurants or are temporarily snatched from the brink of oblivion like Bloomberg's detested Big Gulps — the plastic bag's day as a mundane everyday item, thoughtlessly ignored to propagate under our sinks, is likely over for good. Being the person at the grocery store digging out the goofy reusable knit shopping bag or that weathered WNYC tote no longer marks you as a hapless hippie but as a thoughtful citizen, or at least not a total weirdo. In fact, it's the guy in line handing out custom-printed plastic bags that read I CHOOSE PLASTIC who now seems like the social outlier. When Washington introduced its fee, psychologists who studied it concluded that what caused consumers to reject plastic bags was not the added cost but the sudden social stigma of being the one person who still takes the plastic bags. The smoking ban, for example, would have failed miserably if they'd tried it ten years earlier. Ten years later, though, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
*This article appears in the July 13, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.