Pet owners and New York’s Plastic Bag Ban

Earlier this month, New York City banned plastic bags entirely, forcing consumers to either bring their own bag or pay 5 cents for a paper bag. While the intent is laudable, the decision is troublesome as businesses will see increased costs, while paper bags are worse for the planet than their plastic counterparts. Moreover, since people typically use plastic bags to pick up their pet’s waste, a ban will only encourage pet owners to forego the responsibility entirely, a scenario no one wants to see. 

Concerned about growing environmental damage, New York became the third state to ban plastic bags. The ban, which took effect on March 1st, is set to penalize businesses that don’t comply by April with a $250 fine for the first offense and $500 for the second. Moreover, residents that forgo – or forget – to bring a reusable bag will be penalized with a 5-cent fee for choosing paper bags. In response to this sweeping industry change, over 6,000 businesses have backed a lawsuit that would reverse the ban, as the costs to switch would be substantial. 

One estimate from the Bryn Mawr Trust shows that paper bags are four to five times more expensive than plastic bags, and while this might seem small, a few hundred bags used in a day can quickly add up for a small business. Not only does this mean tighter profit margins for bodegas and grocers, as they will have to stock up on paper bags, but some business owners might increase the price on their products just to compensate. And when that happens, the price will inevitably be passed onto the consumer. 

Even worse, there is no reason to assume the banning plastic is good for the environment. Research from the University of Sydney, School of Economics, found that after a number of California cities imposed plastic bag taxes, sales of 4-gallon and 8-gallon plastic bags skyrocketed. Hardly a ‘win’ for the environment as these bags typically use 30 percent more plastic than their grocery store counterparts. Even more, while the adoption of paper bags might appear to be a solution, they produce a greater cost on the environment. Research from the Northern Ireland Assembly found that because paper bags require the removal of trees, heavy machinery, etc., it “takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag.”

Yet, on top of all these drawbacks, perhaps the most impactful difference will be that New York City will see an increase in animal waste on the streets. Because dogs will inevitably use the restroom during their walk, most people use a plastic bag for its ease and convenience. Yet under New York’s plastic ban, people will suddenly find themselves without a convenient method to pick up their animal’s waste. While some argue there are still alternatives on the market, they are often expensive, with degradable doggy bags costing as much as $17 online.

However, when it comes down to it, is it a realistic expectation that people will go out of their way to buy these products? Only 40 percent of people already pick up after their dogs, a dismal number that is sure to only grow larger because of the plastic bag ban. In 2017, for example, over 20,000 New Yorkers filed complaints about dog poop, and that’s just the amount that was reported. Is there any expectation that the number wouldn’t rise under a plastic bag ban? As the effort to clean the streets of discarded plastic bags is underway, the city could very soon find itself overtaken in an even worse waste problem.

Instead of banning plastic, lawmakers should at the very least retract the bag ban and replace it with a bag tax. While this is still less than ideal (as it still imposes a cost to consumers), at least it will allow consumers to still choose plastic. However, under New York’s decision, the city is making the choice for its residents, something that limits consumer choice and will inevitably lead to more waste on the streets.

As lawmakers rightly look to curb environmental damage, banning plastic bags will have serious impacts that can’t be ignored. Consumers and businesses alike will be at a loss under this ban, while the impacts on the environment will not improve. Furthermore, as people already seldom pick up after their animals, banning plastic would only increase the amount of unwanted animal waste on the streets. As New York looks to go “green,” the new plastic bag ban will only encourage bad pet ownership. 

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