Going a Little Greener, New York State Encourages Plastic Bag Recycling

By Cindy Gorenstein

Helping to protect the environment may be as simple as taking a walk to the supermarket. New York State is combating pollution by requiring supermarkets to provide bins for recycling used plastic grocery bags.

With the enactment of the Bag Reduction Reuse and Recycling Act, in December 2008, New York joined 23 U.S. counties and cities with a law aimed at addressing the problems posed by litter from plastic bags. While New York City passed a recycling law in July 1989, that law did not cover used plastic bags.

A big part of the plastic-bag recycling challenge is that not all plastics are alike. Procedures for melting plastics vary by polymer type, so they must be separated for recycling. When plastic bags are mixed in with other plastics in the same recycling process, they can slow the process down and, in some cases, prevent the garbage from being effectively recycled, says Robert Lange, the New York City Director of the Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling.

Plastic bags and related debris threaten marine life throughout the globe. Millions of marine animals and birds die each year from feeding on plastics, according to Holly Lohuis, a research associate at the Ocean Futures Society, an organization dedicated to preserving oceans (the society was founded by Jean-Michel Cousteau, an explorer and son of the legendary Jacques-Yves Cousteau).

“People think of the ocean as an endless source to dispose of waste,” says Lohuis. “This is no longer possible. Everything is connected. We rely on the oceans and rivers for fresh water to sustain life on this planet. Individuals have to minimize their debris.”

The New York State law requires chain retailers and supermarkets to place the statement “Please return to a participating location for recycling” on all film plastic bags, according to Debbie Jackson of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Stores were given until January 2010 to deplete their supply of existing bags before the additional messaging became mandatory.

While it is still legal to dispose of used plastic bags with non-recyclable trash, supermarkets are mandated to supply and service the recycling bins.

Despite prominent labeling on some bags and the conspicuous positioning of the bins in grocery stores, many New Yorkers are unaware of this new green option. “I haven’t heard about recycling plastic bags,” says Brian Feffer, a 35-year-old-resident of Kew Gardens Hills. “I didn’t notice anything for it at the supermarket either.”

A group of shoppers at a Waldbaum’s in Bay Terrace, Queens, who were in the process of using the supermarket’s outdoor aluminum-can and plastic-bottle recycling receptacles, said they hadn’t heard about recycling plastic grocery bags either and hadn’t noticed bins, which are inside the store. Pointing to a bin filled to capacity, the assistant manager said: “They fill up quickly. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes in re-emptying the bin and storing of the used bags until the Department of Sanitation can pick them up.”

The Pathmark supermarket chain’s efforts go beyond supplying and servicing the bins. A sign at every cash register at the Whitestone Queens store advertises a two-cent refund for every bag that is reused; the refund is a chainwide practice. The plastic recycling bin at the store in Whitestone, Queens, also appeared to be in use this spring.

Then, too, at some stores, shoppers mistake the bins for garbage cans and fill them with empty soda cans, used paper plates and candy wrappers along with the used plastic bags for recycling.

Lange, of the city’s waste prevention bureau, remains optimistic, however. “It takes a long time for the population as a whole to adjust to a new mindset,” he says. Reflecting on his 20-plus years working with the Department of Sanitation, he recalls how much difficulty consumers had, initially, when recycling first became the law 15 years ago. “Now it runs smoothly,” he says.

Some cities do not have to rely on a policy to catch on. San Francisco and Westport, Connecticut, along with nine other jurisdictions, have enacted bans on plastic shopping bags. District of Columbia lawmakers discourage use of plastic bags with a five-cent tax on each bag used. A tax on plastic bags is also being considered in Baltimore.

No place in country is as serious about plastic bags as California, where pending legislation would impose a statewide ban—the nation’s first. At the same time, bans on plastic bags have been proposed in three separate California jurisdictions.

Since usage of the bins is not compulsory for New York residents, it is unclear how successful the program will be once it becomes common knowledge. But as New Yorkers become ever more green-minded, recycling advocates hope it catches on.

One comment

  1. I dont know if imposing tax is enough in this country. Although California is ahead of the game as we can see people there using and selling much more material shopping bag. In the end, what is done with the taxation money? How displayed in the bill is the taxation? Many times recycle bottles fee is concealed somewhere in the bill and not everyone sees it, which defeats the purpose of it as well.
    Take the country Poland as an example. There clients must pay for their plastic bags. I was shocked, but it really made me stop and think: if they are forcing me to pay for it, I should bring my own and save money.
    Even though my thought was selfish and far from wanting to save the planet, it was only when it affected my “pocket” that I realized how big the issue is.
    I loved your article, thanks for it!

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