By J.G. Collins
Senator Hoylman and Assemblymember Epstein recently wrote of their efforts to save the planet’s oceans and prevent global warming by voting to ban plastic bags in New York State and to assess a five- cent tax on each paper bag shoppers use to carry products home.
Those of us with more modest ambitions than saving the planet and a closer focus on municipal and fiscal matters would simply like to reduce the estimated $400,000,000 per year the city spends exporting its solid waste.
Why are we stopping with plastic shopping bags? And why inconvenience and tax already-harried New Yorkers in their hectic workdays to think to carry shopping bags—plastic or otherwise—instead of putting the burden upstream, on producers and distributors of products packaged in plastic?
Plastic milk and juice bottles, plastic take-out containers, and the huge plastic containers of coffee and other dry commodities could be abandoned if the state government had the will to stand up to business lobbyists who would oppose such moves.
Paper milk cartons and the once-ubiquitous folded “Chinese take-out” white cardboard containers with the tin handles, coupled with paper plates, worked fine for generations of New Yorkers until Dustin Hoffman heard “One Word: Plastics!” in the “The Graduate” in 1967. It seems the world changed from then.
We can change it back.
Coffee keeps well in a paper bag enclosed at home in either a tin can or a reusable Tupperware container; those huge vats of plastic coffee containers that could double as ship-board bailing buckets aren’t really necessary. (Those of us of a certain age can even remember our parents grinding their own coffee beans in the grocery into a receiving bag! Some stores still sell coffee that way, fresh ground, and the coffee tastes much better.) And those single-serve coffee dispensers that leave shot-sized plastic containers with each cup brewed have no place in a New York that purports to have environmental concerns. The reusable cartridges work just as well, maybe better.
Eggs sold in plastic see-through containers should get an automatic “no thanks” from every New York consumer. Cardboard, leak-resistant, raw meat trays for meat proteins and tighter inventory management would allow groceries that process meats, like ground beef, to abandon the environmentally deadly—but all pervasive—Styrofoam meat trays that New Yorkers discard by the millions to landfills where they will remain forever.
And how can Albany’s solons even keep a straight face while they try to explain their ban on plastic bags—and their accompanying new paper bag tax—while continuing to exempt non-carbonated, single-use, beverage bottles from the refundable nickel plastic bottle deposit tax? (Maybe someday they’ll get around to applying a return deposit tax on other plastic containers, like plastic ketchup bottles?)
In the city, mandatory composting of organic waste could save enormous amounts of garbage that otherwise goes to landfills, but now even the voluntary composting program is on hold. According to industry sources, that’s because the costs of collecting from the voluntary program is too much; trucks have to travel much further to collect less waste. (It has apparently not occurred to Mayor de Blasio’s Administration that making the program mandatory, at least in larger buildings, would increase participation and thereby reduce per ton collection costs.)
Saving money from city and municipal budgets with efficient garbage collection, and reducing plastic waste at the wholesale and producer level over the consumer level, might not ring so heroic or virtuous as “saving the world” by banning plastic bags, inconveniencing consumers and adding yet another tax on already overburdened New Yorkers. But it would save New Yorkers the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year we pay each year to process and haul plastic waste.
Perhaps Senator Hoylman, Assemblymember Epstein and their colleagues in Albany and City Hall can put some of their time into that kind of modest, measurable, achievable, goal and leave “saving the world” to others better positioned to do so.
J.G. Collins is a 40-year resident of Gramercy. He runs a small consulting firm.