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Is there anything more Un-American than New York’s plastic bag ban?

New York

This city hates prohibitions of any kind. But maybe a plastic-free future will force us out of our comfort zone

For the last six months, notices have gone up at the checkouts of most supermarkets in New York warning customers of a forthcoming change. You can’t live in this city without ignoring things. At any given point, avoiding the roaches, the smells and the creeping sense that in 50 years we will be underwater takes up fully 10% of one’s energy. At the top of that list has been the energetic avoidance of actually reading the sign at the checkout informing us that on 1 March plastic bags will be banned – not just subject to surcharge, but outlawed – across the entire state of New York. If the city is unprepared for coronavirus, it is safe to say this is nothing next to the scenes that will greet us on Sunday morning, when people with a weekly shop in their trolleys arrive at the checkout.

It is quite thrilling, not least because banning things runs so contrary to the American idea. More than 23bn plastic bags are used in New York each year, and the planet is dying, but even so, the Bag Waste Reduction Law is so muscular, so big government, that no one can quite believe it is happening. There are a few workarounds. You will still be able to buy paper bags, for 5c each, but stores aren’t required to provide them. And some supermarkets are offering reusable plastic bags. (To qualify as “reusable”, a bag has to be able to carry 22lbs over a distance of 175 feet, which it is pleasing to imagine the bag police trying to test and enforce).

And there are some exemptions. It will still be permissible for deli meat to come wrapped in plastic, and restaurant delivery food is also exempt. Beyond that, however, there is no get-out, and the fines will be bracing. After a warning, shops caught using single-use bags face a fine of $250 the first time and $500 a pop thereafter.

My response to this, when I finally processed the information last week, was the reflex American gesture of buying more stuff. Like those spreads in Real Simple magazine, which urge consumers to declutter by ordering a lot of bins and containers, the plastic bag ban is a solid opportunity to shop while feeling virtuous. I could, at this stage, give you chapter and verse on the relative merits of foldable canvas versus stiff-sided reusable bags, plus the freezer bag option, and I’m on the fence about wheels. Anyway, I’m excited about a bunch of bags with cool patterns being delivered to my house on Friday.

New York is the third state, after California and Oregon, to enact the ban, and it is debatable how much good it will do. In Californiain 2019, analysis of the ban showed that in the year it was enacted there was a big increase in people buying bin bags. That still looks like a net gain, however, as does the ban’s inculcation of an environmentalist mindset.

Addressing the public over the last few weeks, city councillors have adopted the tone of officials trying to prepare bagless people at the checkout as if for war or ultimate survival – “We can do this,” said one – which taking the long view, probably isn’t far from the truth. New Yorkers don’t like to be inconvenienced, but if the bag ban does one thing, it may force us to pay attention and tremble at the inconveniences to come.


This article was originally published by Emma Brockes,

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