Two states ban plastic bags, sparks campus conversation

New York has now followed in the footsteps of California with state lawmakers agreeing to impose a ban on most single use plastic bags. The ban will target retail plastic bags used for groceries and other carry out bags.

The bill was first considered in March of this year and according to the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo’s Administration, residents of New York were using 23 billion plastic bags every year, a large portion of which they claim were ending up in waterways and land habitats. The University of Georgia conducted a study prior to this New York ban finding that approximately 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into oceans which has been brutal for many marine species.

In New York, plastic bags can be observed in waterways, streets and lakes in the New York region. Currently the NYC department of sanitation estimates costs of plastic bag disposal to be nearing $12.5 million annually.

The ban will come into effect on March 1, 2020. There are some exemptions that will allow retailers to supply plastic bags. These include: the purchase of uncooked meats/seafood, bulk items, sliced or prepared foods, newspapers for delivery, bags for carry out food from restaurants and trash bags sold in bulk. 

Paper bags have also entered the cross-hairs, even though they appear to be the main alternative to plastic. Territories that have elected to ban plastic bags tend to charge a five cent fee for paper bags, this includes New York. However, citizens engaged in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will not have to pay the fee, as lawmakers viewed it as undue to impose the fee on the lower income demographic. While some argue that paper bag taxes are unnecessary for all shoppers, the intent of the fee is to encourage the use of reusable material/hessian bags instead. Success has been achieved in Australia on this matter, however to smooth the transition, reusable hessian bags were provided free of charge for the first 6 weeks after the ban. 

As expected the reactions are diverse to this bill, predictably the food industry was not pleased. Statements provided from The State Food Issued Alliance outline that this shift will see increased costs passed onto the consumer and they are disappointed to see the legislature failing to hear and listen to the concerns of the business community. Crossing over, the environmentalists did not appear to be thrilled with the bill either, particularly with regards to county autonomy for paper alternative charges. They claim that without initiatives coming from the top, road and water ways will be littered with paper instead.

Executive Director of an environmental advocacy group, Peter Iwanowicz, says, “It’s a weak response, New York had a real chance to show leadership.”

Only minor complaints from each side of the debate were made, and the bill passing without either side jumping for joy is often a good pointer that middle ground has been struck. Perhaps both parties could be more optimistic as in California the bans didn’t hit retail stores as much as expected and there were still significant positive effects on the environment from banning solely plastic bags. In San Jose, plastic bag pollution in storm drains fell 90 percent and by 60 percent in waterways according to National Conference of State Legislatures studies on the effects of plastic pollution in states with bans. 

As is the case however with complex issues, the answer is not clear cut. Reusable bags pose issues also. A collaborative study with University of Arizona and Loma Linda University, California, found that reusable bags become breeding grounds for serious strains of food borne bacteria.

University of Arizona professor Charles Gerba, from the soil, water and environmental science department, remarks, “Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half of the bags sampled.”

Re-usable bags are also only a positive if used properly. Due to the production process and other factors the U.K Environmental agency published findings showing that it takes 393 uses or 7.5 years (one grocery visit/week) for reusable bags to be more sustainable than using a plastic bag three times.

Matthew Christman, Vice President Washburn Student Government (WSGA) outlined thoughtfully the landscape for discussions about Washburn’s future in plastic use.

“It would be a great step in being proactive about climate change, as well as keeping our campus litter free but, finding non plastic suppliers, getting facilities on board due to possible issues arising for them and also the financial aspect of it. Changes like this require money and revenue which may end up coming from increasing tuition or pulling from other departments,” said Christman.

He is optimistic however stating, “I would certainly encourage more research into the area, it will be difficult but with student support, change is possible.”

Debate and discussion will continue in New York as they head towards enacting the bill in March next year. As for Washburn, it is merely an idea at this stage, no formal talks have occurred yet.   

Edited by Adam White and Abbie Barth.