New York State’s plastic bag law goes into effect on March 1. While it’s not perfect, I’m thrilled that my home state has taken this major first step. Many are celebrating along with me, but others worry that a ban on plastic shopping bags will be an economic burden and a huge inconvenience.
When I spearheaded a reusable bag initiative in my hometown, I received a lot of questions from concerned residents, merchants, and city officials. Over the course of eight months I, and the rest of the Rye Sustainability group, worked to answer those questions. The goal was to reassure citizens that a plastic bag law wouldn’t mean the end of convenience.
Here are the most common questions/concerns and my answers.
Why Do We Need a Plastic Bag Law?
Single-use, disposable plastic bags are a major source of lingering litter and pollution in our environment. These bags don’t break down, are extremely difficult to recycle, and can only be reused once – perhaps twice – before being thrown away. In fact, most are used just once to carry goods from the store to home.
Unfortunately, education campaigns aren’t enough to persuade people to change their habits. Voluntary reduction campaigns haven’t been effective in reducing people’s reliance on single-use disposable bags. Just like seat-belt and smoking laws, sometimes it’s necessary to pass regulations to help change habits.
That said, a plastic bag law shouldn’t be the end goal. Instead, it should be part of a broader educational campaign to encourage the use of reusable bags and rethink our reliance on single-use disposables.
For more information on plastic bags and their impact on the environment, see the Resources Section of How to Pass a Plastic Bag Ban: 8 Key Lessons
How Do I Pick up Dog Poop? Kitty Litter?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions I hear. The issue is that many of us don’t – and shouldn’t have to – purchase bags for poop pickup. So we end up using plastic bags from the store. What’s the option when those bags are banned?
If you take a moment to look around your home, you’ll quickly discover that you already have quite a few plastic bags. I list here some no (additional) cost options for picking up the poop, or other messy things:
- bread bags
- newspaper bags
- cotton ball bags
- plastic packaging
- produce bags, although you can purchase excellent reusable alternatives. (Check out Step 4 in my Simple Steps post for suggestions.)
If you want to purchase environmentally friendly poop bags, check the labels carefully. Many don’t break down or do so only under specific conditions. My top picks:
- BioBag Pet Waste Bags. Certified compostable with organic waste in a municipal setting.
- Flush Puppies Doodie Bags. Certified compostable and they’re flushable.
The problem of poop disposal remains when you’re using a plastic bag of any kind. If you’re committed to going plastic-free, there aren’t a ton of solutions:
- A pooper scooper/rake. The Petmate Swivel Bin & Rake gets high marks.
- Flushing the poop (check sewage restrictions).
- A pet waste disposal system, like the Doggie Dooley Dog Toilet.
I Use Plastic Bags to Line My Wastebasket. Now What Do I Do?
There’s typically some confusion about which plastic bags are banned under a plastic bag law. More often than not, the law covers plastic bags at checkout. That’s what we have in Rye.
Exemptions to a plastic bag law almost always include:
- garbage bags
- produce bags
- deli meat bags
- dry cleaning bags
Sometimes municipalities will exempt thicker plastic bags and/or certain businesses; for example, restaurants and non-profits.
Now that I’ve clarified the details of the law, let’s look at solutions for your wastebasket or bathroom waste bin:
- Garbage bags. Use those kitchen garbage bags for all your waste needs. Consider using recycled plastic trash bags, like Seventh Generation.
- Paper bags.
- Compostable bags. It’s important to purchase a certified compostable bag (vs “biodegradable”) and the bags ultimately need to be disposed of in a commercial composting facility. My post on biodegradable vs compostable products explains the difference so you can make an informed decision.
- Nothing! If you think about it, most waste baskets are used for paper trash, not food waste. And bathroom waste bins are typically made from a material that can be wiped down or washed (plastic, ceramic, metal). So do you really need that liner? I’ve never used one in my wastebaskets or bathroom bins and it hasn’t been a problem.
Reusable Bags Get Dirty. I’ll Get Sick From Them.
This question crops up a lot. Plastic bag industry groups attempt to spread fear in the hearts of shoppers by claiming that reusable bags are riddled with germs and will make us very sick.
This accusation popped up a few years ago when I was making a presentation at a public hearing for a neighboring town’s plastic bag law. A man in the audience stood up and said he’d read numerous articles about germ-carrying reusable bags that had caused terrible illnesses.
In response, I gave an account of my shopping trip just that afternoon: I’d picked up a couple of containers of prepared split pea soup for dinner. On the way home, the soup spilled and had left a smelly, dirty scum in my favorite blue shopping bag. So what did I do? I popped the bag in the washing machine!
And that’s all you need to do. Just like clothes, sheets, towels – in fact, most items in your home – when they get dirty, just give them a wash!
I Don’t Have a Car. I Can’t Carry All Those Reusable Bags!
Maybe you live in a city where you rely on public transportation. Carrying large shopping bags everywhere is a huge pain. What do you do?
Although I live in the suburbs and have a car, there are many times I don’t drive. When I head out the door, I have a few small, pouch-bags tucked in my purse. They’re incredibly convenient and small enough to fit in a pocket, backpack, or work bag. They’re also washable and, of course, reusable.
There are hundreds of different styles and brands to choose from. I list a few here:
- ChicoBag. You can’t go wrong with Chico. Choose from a variety of styles, sizes, and colors. The carabiner clip is a handy addition.
- Baggu. These are so pretty! My favorite is the Cherry Blossom.
- Bee Green. For big shopping trips, Bee Green is a great choice.
- Stoncel Net bags. Although they don’t fold up, net bags are still compact-able. A stylish addition to your shopping trip.
What About Biodegradable Bags. Aren’t They OK?
Beware products that sport a “biodegradable” label. Most likely it’s greenwashing and the product doesn’t break down within a reasonable amount of time.
Although certified compostable bags are a better alternative, the best option is to reduce our reliance on convenience products that are only used a few times and then thrown away. So a plastic bag law shouldn’t permit the option of switching plastic for biodegradable/compostable shopping bags.
Once you get into the habit of having a few reusable bags in your car and some smaller pouch-bags in your purse or backpack, you won’t think twice about it.
This Plastic Bag Law Restricts my Freedom. Why Should the Government Tell Me What To Do?
Let’s get one thing out of the way before I respond to this: Whatever your political persuasion, you accept “government” telling you what to do every minute of every day. Laws dictate the speed you can drive on the highway. You can’t smoke on airplanes. You need to buckle up.
Yes, there are grey areas where issues are debatable, but I think (hope!) we all agree that it’s not good to leave garbage in public spaces or toss it out the window. At one time that was an enormous problem in this country.
In fact, I remember as a child not being able to play in Central Park because dog poop and garbage blanketed the grass. When New York City’s “pooper scooper” law was passed in the late 1970s, many complained that it was too restrictive. But today – with Central Park a desirable destination – very few complain that their rights have been compromised.
The proliferation of single-use plastic waste is at a crisis point where we can’t think of plastic bag use as being a personal issue. It’s a waste problem that impacts people, wildlife, and our environment.
We need to work together to help reduce the buildup of this type of waste. In the case of plastic bags, the solution is so simple: durable, reusable alternatives!