Tackling Single-Use Plastics in New York

Following on our previous post about recycling issues in New York City, we focus on one of the biggest targets in our waste stream: single-use plastics. In our culture of consumption and disposal, people use shopping bags, utensils, cups, and take-out containers once and throw them away. This behavior has to change in order to address climate change and meet NYC’s goal of Zero Waste by 2030 (0x30).

In the NYC Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) 2017 Waste Characterization Study, it was found that the agency collects roughly 36 million pounds of single-use plastics from homes each year across the five boroughs. The department estimates that commercial establishments contribute tens of million more pounds to that already staggering number.

The cost of single-use plastics to our local economies and our environmental health is rising exponentially. According to the Clean Water Action (CWA), the biggest source of litter (49%) in the world’s oceans is take-out food. The CWA also found that up to 31% of collected trash could be eliminated by simply switching to reusable alternatives.

While recycling efforts have notably increased in the past decade, so too has the amount of single-use plastics improperly disposed in refuse collection. Simply put, more recycling will not solve plastic pollution.

It is clear that more aggressive actions are necessary. Fortunately, policy changes on this issue will soon be implemented, or are currently being deliberated at the state and local level.

On March 1st, 2020, New York will take a critical step toward reducing plastic pollution in the state, banning most types of single-use plastic bags. The law will eliminate billions of plastic bags each year, which will protect waterways, create cleaner streets and parks, and improve recycling systems that are often clogged by the bags. However, several exemptions will remain, including take-out bags at restaurants, dry cleaning bags, bags for deli counter products, and plastic bags sold in bulk (such as garbage and recycling bags).

The new law also allows counties and cities to enact a five-cent fee on paper bags, which can further reduce litter and solid waste pollution, and lower demand on the carbon-emitting factories that produce the product. New York City, which is one municipality that took advantage of this option, will roll out the paper bag fee on the same day as the plastic bag ban. DSNY is holding outreach events across the City to hand out reusable bags and make sure that New Yorkers are aware of the change.

But bags are only one part of our plastic problem. Single-use plastics, such as utensils, often accompany the food and beverages that we consume. Their use should be discouraged, and we should move toward reusable alternatives. There are several bills currently in front of New York City Council that aim to address the matter, including a ban on plastic straws, a by-request-only requirement for delivery and take-out utensils, a reusable container law, and a study on alternatives to single-use plastics more broadly.

Limiting the amount of plastics that are available to consumers will continue to advance the agenda of the 0x30 goal, eliminating an immense percentage of waste, litter, and pollution within New York City. In fact, it is so common sense that Mayor de Blasio signed an executive order last year for City agencies to immediately slash the use of single-use plastics, and to not sign any new contracts regarding their purchase.

If these agencies are able to meet their goal of reducing plastic waste, imagine what it would mean if the entire city could do the same. Further, guaranteeing that all New Yorkers can use their own reusable containers would reduce waste and build sustainable habits. In addition to the single-use bag law, the New York City Council should take up all of these bills in 2020 to help us finally address our plastics crisis once and for all.