04/11/2007 12:00 AM |

I know I’ve covered it previously in this space, but it’s an issue that cannot be stressed enough: the evil of plastic bags. So, praise be to San Francisco. Their recent limited ban of plastic shopping bags has forced North Americans to take a look at one environmental issue that’s already been seriously addressed by cities, regions and countries all over (the rest of) the world.
Ireland introduced a (small) tax on plastic bags, and reduced their consumption of same by 90 percent, while raising millions of dollars to protect the environment. Bangladesh banned them for their role in exacerbating flooding, as did the city of Mumbai (population 18 million). South Africa, Taiwan, Zanzibar and Thailand have also dispensed with these disposables. So what the hell are we doing still drowning in plastic?

Let the whitewashing begin! As New York looks west and contemplates, at least theoretically, a similar ban, the plastics cabal is trying to convince us to stick with its product. On NPR last week, a discussion between the director of the San Francisco Dept. of the Environment and a fear-mongering emissary from the Film and Bag Federation taught me a few things. We were told that diapers and dog poop couldn’t be disposed of without plastic bags (tell that to my mom, who’s never used anything but paper to pick up after her dogs). Despite hard evidence to the contrary, Plastic Woman also told us that reusable canvas bags would lead to an increase in shoplifting (!), and had the potential to cause health problems if they weren’t washed after use. Are you kidding? 
Well-documented health problems caused by plastic bags? Suffocation of children, animals, and birds; cancer and reproductive problems caused by plasticizers; drain clogging leading to costly flooding; contamination of our soil by plastic bits from broken-down bags; greenhouse-gas emissions from factories that make and trucks that transport bags. Some “recycling” programs for plastic bags export them to China, where they’re burned, causing extensive air, water and soil pollution.
San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi estimates his city spends $8 million a year to clean up plastic-bag related messes. And that’s a city of only 740,000 people. If New York is spending at anything like that rate, we’re dropping at least $80 million a year on bag damage control and clean-up alone. That’s a lot of tax dollars. Recycle them, you say? Well, after ten years of trying, San Fran achieved the awesome recycling rate of one percent.

It’s time New York stepped up to the plate and did something. And we can do more than San Francisco, which is forcing only large supermarkets and chain drugstores to switch to biodegradable plastic alternatives. My proposal? Copy the Irish model, and impose a 25-cent tax on each and every plastic bag dispensed by shops in the city. We change city sales-tax rates frequently enough that all stores can handle this (I know, I worked retail for years). If you want the convenience of a plastic bag, pay the quarter, get the bag, and know  you’re shouldering your share of the environmental cost. If you don’t want to pay, take your own bag. All tax revenues would fund further environmental initiatives — planting trees, improving recycling programs,  buying land for community gardens. Considering how often we’re told the city can’t afford to improve our environment, or maintain our parks, 10 or 20 or 30 million dollars a year could really come in handy, no?

The result? Less oil consumed, fewer toxic byproducts, a reduction in greenhouse gases from both the production and transportation of bags, reduced waste disposal costs, and lower health care costs when pollution from trucks and bag-makers is reduced. Not to mention the improvements to the city afforded by a new revenue stream.

Call Bloomberg. Write your city councilperson. Start yelling to whomever will listen. It’s the only way to go.

 Bug the mayor:
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
City Hall, NY, NY 10007
FAX (212) 788-2460

 Bug the senators:
Hillary Rodham Clinton
780 Third Ave, Suite 2601
NY, NY 10017
Phone: (212) 688-6262
Fax: (212) 688-7444

Chuck Schumer
757 Third Avenue, Suite 17-02
NY, NY 10017
Phone: 212-486-4430
Fax: 212-486-7693

Click through to find your federal, state, and city representative (and bug them, too)