EDITORIAL: The bag story

HEY, BUDDY, CAN YOU SPARE A BAG? Not if it’s a single-use “carry-out” bag and you want it in New York. In case you haven’t yet gone shopping, we are switching to “bag-off” mode starting Sunday, March 1.

Bag-ageddon! Most of us will not—or at least shouldn’t–be able to obtain the thin plastic bags that shoppers have used for carry their food and household needs from the supermarket checkout to the parking lot for the last 40 years. Instead, we’ll all have to get used to bringing a re-usable bag that’s full of re-usable bags into the store so we can wrangle groceries or other purchases to the car. You could buy new, reusable bags at the stores every time you shop, but eventually you’ll have so many bags, there won’t be any room left for groceries.

The state law banning many types of plastic bags was signed by Governor Cuomo almost a year ago. (Seven other states around the country have similar laws.) Back in 2019 the law got some attention but, with implementation delayed by a year, other news stories captured our attention. The delay has given bag providers and bag users time to adjust. But if the state Department of Environmental Conservation was alerting the public to prepare for the bright bagless future, it didn’t register around here until last week. So who needed anything else to worry about?

Adults statewide who plan to feed, clothe or otherwise provide for themselves and their families will have to make a few adjustments. You could try replacing plastic bags from the store by ordering everything from Amazon. But that’s a different discussion. For some, this new law will trigger a tingle of environmental virtue because we believe we’re helping clean up the mess of bag litter and the carbon waste that comes from bag production. That may be true, but the evidence that replacing single-use plastic bags with reusable bags will reduce the carbon footprint of our shopping has yet to be tested. Either way, most of us will shrug off the ban as a minor inconvenience, regardless.

That won’t be as easy for people who live on the financial edge. That $1 some stores charge for two reusable bags to take the place of three or four (free) single-use bags means that much less they have for food.

The DEC says it has 270,000 reusable bags to give away to “low- and moderate-income communities,” which sounds like a lot. The latest available figures show that there are more families with incomes below the poverty level statewide than there are bags for them to carry home whatever they can afford to eat. Maybe there will be some free reusable food bags from the state available at food pantries around Columbia County for the 1,000 or so families here who have the greatest need. That would be, for example, the people who have less than the $24,600 annual earnings, the “poverty level” for a family of four. There are many more families here whose income suggests that they are what the government calls “food insecure.”

The state took that into consideration when the law was drafted. The ban doesn’t apply to people who receive federal aid from two of the largest federal food support programs, SNAP (what used to be called “food stamps”) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) as well as food banks statewide. It’s not clear how stores will make these exemptions work or if there’s a way to avoid the public shaming that poisons efforts to assist people who can use a helping hand.

It’s possible that all we’ll need is a few more heavy-duty reusable bags and life will go on without single-use bags. If you’ve got a handful or a trunk full of clean, reusable bags, consider sharing a few of them with local food pantries. But check first to see that more bags are needed. The demand isn’t clear yet. And Please be sure they’re clean and sturdy. Don’t make more work for food pantry staff.

This law eliminates a source of litter and reduces the threat that single use bags pose to wildlife when animals ingest them. But it’s real value is as a test case. It will give us a clue as to whether we can wean ourselves from even the least of our oil based luxuries—single-use plastic bags. If we can’t give up the nonessential stuff of our carbon-rich lifestyle, how can we expect to prevent the extinction of our species?

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