Starting March 1, New York is set to join a handful of other states, including Connecticut, Delaware, Maine and Vermont, in banning the use of disposable plastic bags at commercial locations.
The law even goes further, mandating that shops charge a 5-cent paper bag fee. It’s a good step, but Americans will need to do much more than that to wean ourselves off the plastic waste that the U.S. produces. According to many studies, we use — and dispose of — more plastic than any other nation on the planet.
According to a 2019 analysis by the global risk consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft, the average American produces 234 pounds of plastic waste per year, and only 35 percent of our municipal waste is recycled. Compare that to Germany, which recycles 68 percent of its waste.
The same study found that despite having just 4 percent of the world’s population, America produces 12 percent of the world’s solid waste. China and India, on the other hand, despite accounting for more than 36 percent of the world’s population, produce 27 percent of the planet’s waste.
The firm concluded that the U.S. is the only developed country in the world whose waste production far outstrips its ability to recycle, and that it suffers from a “shortage of political will and investment in infrastructure” to address its waste problem head-on.
An alarming amount of our waste, particularly plastics, ends up in the world’s oceans. According to a 2015 study by the journal Science, the U.S. sends 242 million pounds of plastic into the oceans each year. On Long Island, where we see an increasing number of marine creatures killed or injured and beaches ravaged by trash, this should give us great cause for concern.
On the infrastructure side, the American recycling industry, which was long accustomed to China cheaply accepting its unsorted recyclables, has been left reeling by China’s decision in 2018 to close its borders to the world’s waste. The situation has highlighted the limits of a market-based recycling system. For years leading up to China’s closure, the price of the plastic it took in had been dropping owing to a glut, with the country’s decision only accelerating the crisis.
Now municipalities that had relied on private recycling firms offering them rock-bottom prices for their services are facing a reckoning of whether to scale back or discontinue their recycling programs.
With firms struggling to find cheap sorting solutions and lucrative destinations for their recyclables, municipalities such as Valley Stream have had to switch to dual-stream programs to ease the sorting burden and cut back on the types of plastics their programs will accept, because it is often cheaper to produce new plastics than it is to recycle certain types.
In New York, the political will to effect change, at least for now, appears to be materializing. It has historically been the role of government to drag its constituents, sometimes kicking and screaming, away from their worst impulses. In addition to the bag ban, the state could devise a system to bolster its recycling industry, setting benchmarks or providing subsidies. It lieu of those measures, it could also require retailers to carry plastic packaging made of No. 1 and 2 plastics, which are the easiest and cheapest to recycle.
But there is also much that individuals can do to cut down on waste. For instance:
• Buy reusable shopping bags. There might be an added inconvenience of bringing them to and from your car, but they are the only way to avoid the incoming bag fees, and are environmentally friendly.
• Compost: Up to 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted, according to the Department of Agriculture. Cut down on that by starting a compost pile, or purchasing a composting tumbler. Either has the added benefit of fertilizing gardens and house plants.
• Buy and sell used items at thrift shops. You save money, and you can feel good that your items might have a second lease on life.
• Give it away. Donate your clothes and toys to organizations like Big Brother, Big Sister.
• Make shopping lists. Impulse buys are notorious for creating waste. Whether it’s food or some frivolous electronic item, more than likely you don’t need it, and shopping lists help keep you on track.
• Buy in bulk. This helps cut down on packaging waste.