Greening our Towns – Single-Use Bag Ordinance

Whether your town is working on passing a reusable bag initiative or already has one in place, many of the ideas discussed at our recent Greening Our Towns event could be helpful!

On Thursday, January 19, 2017, representatives from 10 municipalities that have not yet passed single-use bag legislation came together to hear from New Castle, Hastings, and the City of Rye to learn how they passed it in their towns.

Steve Wolk from New Castle’s Sustainability Advisory Board gave a presentation on how they accomplished their Reusable Bag Initiative. We then opened up the conversation to include Haven Colgate and Coco Zordan from Hastings, and Sara Goddard from the City of Rye to answer questions from the audience on more specific issues related to passing this type of legislation. 

Greening our Towns – Single-Use Bag Ordinance

General tips for passing a new initiative in your town

There was a ton of great advice shared about working together with elected officials and the community that could be useful for any kind of initiative:

Speak with residents and get their support by going door-to-door or tabling at a public space, like a supermarket. If you’re collecting signatures, it’s helpful to have two different petitions: one for residents who are of voting age and one for students. Get residents’ emails and ask them to write to the town/village board so that the board can see how much support there is for the initiative.

Try to collect evidence of the problem, like the litter caused by plastic bags. For instance, Greenburgh Nature Center held an exhibition of photographs taken by students of all the plastic bags they encountered in two hours. Have a group of people take photos of plastic bags seen in the environment as they enjoy a walk around their community. These visuals have a big impact.

If there are any issues within the community with this initiative, identify where the skepticism is coming from and speak directly with those groups. Dig into the sources of information that they’re using and rely on reputable sources for your research.

Discuss the initiative with businesses so that they’re not blindsided. A reusable bag initiative can help businesses by reducing the number of bags they have to purchase; stores can also make money from selling reusable bags. If you have a petition available, show the stores that they have many customers who would be happy to have a reusable bag initiative. Also, help make it clear to shoppers that it’s really an initiative coming from the town, and that it’s not “the store’s fault.”

Then, “reduce perceived risk” and “make it easy” for the town to pass it. Show the signatures of all the voters who want the initiative to be passed and will be pleased with their elected officials. In addition, point out any current costs to taxpayers: for instance, it takes the Department of Public Works time to clean up plastic bags (especially picking them out of trees!). According to one estimate in Los Angeles, it cost their waste transfer stations $1,500 to $25,000 each month to pick up bags.

Meet with individual board members to answer any questions and follow up to check that you addressed their concerns. If possible, it’s always better to meet in person. There may be questions about legal issues: for example, Hastings was sued because their law was considered “arbitrary” since it only covered plastic bags. Including paper bags in the law as well could reduce this risk (more details here).

Do all the extra work that comes along with passing an ordinance—like providing sample text—and be available to notify the public, create posters, and answer questions. Check out local online forums and respond to any concerns that arise. Most of all, keep it fun! Involve the public local schools, and community groups.

plastic-bag-costume
Alicia Molloy, past Program Director

What are some ways to work together as municipalities?

  • Get help from each other: Reach out to other municipalities who have done what you’re hoping to do and ask their advice. If you’re part of a community that has successfully passed an initiative that someone else would like to try, consider writing a letter to the editor about what happened in your town after you passed it.
  • Share resources or presentations (or even a plastic bag outfit!)
  • Show up for each other’s public meetings
  • Keep legislators updated on what’s happening at the municipal level

Specific information for reusable bag initiatives

Why eliminate paper bags and plastic bags?

The production and distribution of paper bags can lead to higher carbon emissions than plastic bags; according to “How Bad Are Bananas? The carbon footprint of everything” by Lancaster University Professor Mike Berners-Lee, the heavier weight of paper bags means that more carbon emissions are produced to manufacture them. Therefore, decreasing the use of all single-use bags is important.

Is it better to include styrofoam containers along with plastic and paper bags?

There are a few different perspectives on this. Hastings tackled litter all at once by ending the distribution of plastic bags and styrofoam containers, which were replaced by aluminum or paper. New Castle didn’t add another material to the mix and will focus on Styrofoam later. It really depends on the constituents of each town: if they seem receptive to the idea, it can be a good idea to include styrofoam.

How do I get and distribute reusable bags?

Local companies may be willing to sponsor reusable bags, and students can compete to design the artwork that will go on the bags. Reusable bags can be sent out with students or distributed at stores, community events, or farmers’ markets. In addition, reusable bags can be swapped within the community; for instance, there may be some households that have many extra bags and would be willing to donate them for a “Leave a bag, take a bag” table. Materials like old t-shirts can be upcycled into reusable bags (here’s an example of how to make a bag in ten minutes without sewing).

Dispelling common misconceptions:

Although there may be objections that come up to a reusable bag initiative, the good news is that they usually fall into a few categories:

Objection: “But we use our bags as trash liners or for picking up after dogs.”

Solution: Produce bags are still available in supermarkets, which can be used to pick up after dogs or as trash liners for small containers. In addition, there are still many things that come in plastic covers (newspapers, items delivered in the mail) that can be collected in a basket in the kitchen. Many people likely already have a stockpile of plastic bags in their homes that can last for quite a while.

If people are worried about having to pay for bags, bags that were once provided for free aren’t anymore. Even if people need to buy bags, they will be using less plastic overall, which has made a difference in countries like Rwanda that have banned plastic bags.

Finally, these bags are relatively new. According to “How the Plastic Bag Became so Popular” in The Atlantic, “Plastic grocery bags were introduced in America in 1979; Kroger and Safeway had picked them up in 1982. But relatively few stores were using them…By the end of 1985, 75 percent of supermarkets were offering plastic bags to their customers.” According to the New York Times, plastic bags “were first put at check-out stands in 1977.” Before these bags were distributed in stores, people were lining containers with paper or wiping wastebaskets clean.

Objection: “Can’t we recycle plastic bags?”

Response: Although large stores have recycling facilities for plastic bags, the process can be inefficient. For instance, many bags are transported long distances (Shoprite’s facility is in Elizabeth, New Jersey), emitting greenhouse gases. According to this interview with the manager of a recycling facility in Brooklyn, the profitability of recycling plastic bags depends on the price of oil, and “When the price of oil gets really low, using recycled plastic can actually be more expensive because it has to be sorted and cleaned…Outerbridge says he can find a buyer for his plastic bags about half the time. The other half of the time, the bags go to a landfill.”

Objection: “Aren’t reusable bags a public health hazard (ex: by spreading salmonella)?”

Solution: Food needs to be washed first no matter whether you use a plastic bag or a reusable one, especially after being placed in a shopping cart.

reusable-bag-initiative-1

What’s happening at the County and State level?

As of today, it does not seem as if the Westchester will go through with a county-wide initiative unless there’s a lot of pressure.

As for New York State, Senate Bill S362 was introduced that “Establishes a prohibition on the imposition of any tax, fee or local charge on carry out merchandise bags in cities having a population of one million or more.” (A “fee” is a charge that a store must keep and print on the receipt). It was passed in Assembly earlier this month, and unfortunately on February 14, one day before a law in New York City charging a 5-cent fee on plastic bags was set to go into effect, Governor Cuomo signed a bill,effectively killing the law.

Read the complete bill here.

While the law does not directly affect any Westchester County towns since it’s for municipalities with over 1 million in population, it certainly does impact what we are trying to achieve in encouraging people to bring their own reusable bags to stores and reducing our addiction to single-use bags.

We still encourage residents to call Governor Cuomo to express your displeasure to him over signing this bill at (518) 474-8390.

Resources

Plastic Bags and Our Environment: What You Can Do to Help – by FCWC: This handout covers some of facts about plastic bags and their impacts, and includes tips on what residents can do about them. Additional information is available on our “Reusable Bag Initiative” page.

FAQ’s on Retail Shopping Bag Ordinances – by Rye Sustainability Committee: This covers questions about the need for an ordinance, the impacts on stores and consumers, and more.

Plastic Bag Laws – by Jennie Romer: “In an effort to facilitate research for cities and states interested in adopting plastic bag laws, we have compiled the text of laws, related litigation, and relevant studies.” There’s also a series of short videos available about bag ordinances.

Update: Read our report of the event here. Includes links to posters, petitions, talking points, and other resources for passing your own initiative, as well as contact information for leaders in local communities who have successfully passed reusable bag initiatives.

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