The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

New York Politicians Wage War on Plastic

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, both Democrats, are widely reported not to get along very well.  But they have at least one thing in common: they are waging a war on plastic products. 

Plastic bags and plastic bottles, used by countless New Yorkers every day, are both on the naughty list.  De Blasio tweeted in March 2018 that plastic bags need to be banned.  He added that he preferred not to debate the topic because “the time for debate on this is over.”

If he had wanted a debate before the time expired, many of his constituents undoubtedly would have been willing to participate.  People who earn a living producing plastic bags may have had something to say in defense of their jobs.  Ordinary consumers who use plastic bags for hundreds of good, environmentally-friendly reasons would have shared their opinions in a debate with the mayor.  And voters who care about New York’s punishingly high taxes, broken subway system, and crime might not have thought that enforcing a ban on plastic bags would qualify as the best use of government time and resources.

After De Blasio’s tweet, the progressive actress Cynthia Nixon announced a primary challenge to Governor Cuomo, who, unlike the mayor, faces an election this year amid torrents of criticism from the far left.  A savvy politician whose expected 2020 presidential bid requires him to get re-elected in 2018 first, Cuomo immediately realized the huge potential threat of Nixon’s candidacy and began trying to use his bully pulpit to move the state even further to the left.  One of his newfound interests is a statewide plastic bag ban. 

This move is not only a shift leftward, but it is also a reversal of the governor’s previous position, coming just 14 months after he blocked an effort, supported by Mayor De Blasio, to impose a regressive 5-cent tax on plastic bags in New York City.  The more liberal De Blasio is surely chortling at what Nixon’s upstart campaign is forcing the governor to propose.

It’s not just bags that have incurred the wrath of Empire State politicians.  Their disdain for plastic also applies to “single-use” plastic bottles.  Two members of the New York City Council have proposed banning plastic water bottles in the city’s parks and beaches.  One of the sponsors of the effort, Councilman Rafael Espinal, admitted that the bill’s introduction was primarily motivated by a desire to strike back at the Trump administration’s August 2017 decision to rescind a ban on plastic water bottles in National Parks.  It is the mayor’s policy not to comment on legislation before it is formally introduced, but it is easy to imagine that he would sign the bill.  If you plan to take a jog through Central Park or head down to Coney Island for the afternoon, the easiest way to keep yourself hydrated will be unavailable. 

These claims about plastic, imparted to the people by those who have a knee-jerk penchant for telling everyone else what to think, deserve more rigorous scrutiny.  Plastic bags that are defined as “single use” have many uses in everyday life.  In fact, the vast majority of consumers re-use their plastic bags, as any dog owner can confirm.  There are all sorts of uses for plastic bags, and the idea that the average person would be too helpless to understand that is a view that only a politician could take.  Just because the Governor of New York is unable to think of alternative uses for plastic bags does not mean they cannot be used for things other than transporting groceries.

Nor should we always accept the dire warnings of the environmental lobby without questioning them. 

Plastic waste that ends up in oceans should be a concern for all, but is indicative mostly of a societal problem of littering and a failure of government to prevent it.  Bags of any kind represent a tiny fraction of all litter.  Plastic bags themselves are among the most environmentally responsible options for shoppers.  The process for their manufacture is extremely efficient, inexpensive, and puts much less drain on resources than the process for paper bags and other bags.  In fact, according to the UK Environment Agency, “[t]he environmental impact of all types of carrier bag is dominated by resource use and production stages” (emphasis added).  A paper bag must be reused 3 times before it results in less environmental impact than a plastic bag, and a “reusable” tote bag must be reused 131 times.

Governor Cuomo, Mayor De Blasio, and the New York City Council should take a step back, put aside the politics, stop demonizing the plastics industry, and responsibly protect the environment while encouraging consumer choice.

 

 

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