An Environmentalist in NYC: Initial perspectives & the power of the plastic bag

By Lauren DeMates.

As a Californian and environmentalist, my first six months in New York have been interesting – to say the least. What motivated me to write this post was being here long enough to develop a fair perspective, and seeing an article last week in the Guardian highlighting NYC as number 3 in a new sustainable cities index (Tokyo number 1 and London 2). The IESE Cities in Motion Index looks at 10 key dimensions that define a city: governance, public management, urban planning, technology, the environment, international outreach, social cohesion, human capital and the economy. 

This is great and inspiring, but surprised me because NYC just doesn’t seem to have the sustainability mindset of San Francisco, Portland, or some European cities; it’s just not ingrained. I do recognize that the demographics of the city are different than say SF or Portland with their overwhelmingly “white middle class/ hippie/environmentalist” aspects. NYC is old, diverse, huge, and bureaucratic (especially when it comes to coordination between 5 boroughs). This make sustainable initiatives more difficult to plan and actually implement; it is impressive that NYC is as sustainable as it is.

Outgoing Mayor Bloomberg did a lot, and momentum for recovering from Hurricane Sandy is still present, motivating all types of resilience projects around the city. 

PlaNYC launched in 2007 bringing together 25 city agencies and whose environmental accomplishments include increasing/improving parks, elevating energy efficiency requirements for buildings, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions 13% below 2005 levels (per website). Exciting partnerships I have heard of this year include the public/private Green Bank to encourage investments in clean tech and another innovative partnership underway to extensively increase the use of biogas from landfills for energy. Of course, there are also recycling initiatives, community and rooftop gardens, and farmers markets; as well as innovative businesses, NGOs, think-tanks, and universities to offer thought leadership. I am sure there are tons of other great projects happening right now in NYC.

However, it seems that one of the biggest environmental concerns is one that city dwellers and tourists alike face on a daily basis: trash.

NYC is just dirty; And although actual trash on the ground does vary by borough and neighborhood, it is a systematic issue that projects cannot adequately address. A friend recently brought to my attention an MTA Transit measure that reduced the number of trash cans in subway stations to cut down trash in the subways and on the tracks thinking that would incentivize people to just take their trash with them. The department says trash has cut down in the actual subways, but who knows where it went- this just doesn’t make any sense to me. A positive note on the city council front is the law passed January 2014 that bans styrofoam and loose polystyrene foam used in packing, commonly known as “peanuts.” That will cut down some trash when goes into effect July 1, 2015.

The development that I think is key to improving the trash issue and getting New Yorkers to consider the environment a little more in daily life is the 10 cent tax on plastic bags. 

Every year, New Yorkers circulate an estimated 5.2 billion disposable bags, and the city pays $10 million annually to send 100,000 tons of plastic bags that are tossed in the general trash to landfills in South Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania (Per Deputy Commissioner of Sanitation). And that is just speaking to plastic bags that make it to landfill; bags clog sewer drains, pollute rivers and waterways, and can be seen as litter all over the streets. Proposed tax has made it through hoops already and is currently within city council. NYC needs this market-based incentive to reduce the use of and build up of bags. If policy receives adequate support and includes a focus on increasing the ease of recycling and education efforts, it can have a big impact (take a look at my previous post analyzing national level plastic bag policies for more info on effective plastic policy).

One of the very first things that I noticed when I moved here and still continues to amaze me is after making a purchase, no matter how small the item is, the cashier will automatically put it in a bag and hand it to you. Customers are never asked if they need a bag; it seems as if not taking a bag isn’t even an option. I have to be ready and armed right off the bat to chime in that I don’t need a bag, without cutting them off and being rude. A cashier even asked me one time why I didn’t want a bag (I was buying sheets that were already in plastic container). The question completely threw me off, why would I want a bag? I didn’t say that though- I said ‘so there is one less in a landfill’ and he said ‘awww thats nice.’ Back to the point- tax on plastic bags will get people to start to ask, ‘Do I really need a bag?’ This is the first step in shifting mindsets towards considering the effects of our daily activities on the environment.

NYC isn’t going to turn into a San Francisco anytime soon, but a tax on plastic bags is great no matter what. NYC has the resources and network to really step it up when it comes to trash. For more specific information on the plastic bag tax, check out this link from Bag it NYC.


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