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Would you like a Paper or Plastic bag? by CityTech blogger Sergio Carrillo

Would you like a paper or plastic bag?

The question is one that not many people think twice before making a choice, at least in New York City. But, what if using plastic bags for groceries, bread, fruits, vegetables and any other goods we may need it for, were prohibited or fined?

Currently, there are fines or tickets for violations of Motor of Vehicles, Health Department, Fire Department, just to mention a few, but what about for using items like plastic bags?

Well, let me share a bit of an article that really makes me read to the last sentence! Let me take you to one of the most clean and disciplined cities in the African Continent, where using plastic bags not just induces public shaming, but is also considered a crime! Welcome to Gisenyi, Rwnada. Gisenyi is contiguous with Goma, the city across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Here in Rwanda, it is illegal to import, produce, use or sell plastic bags and plastic packaging except within specific industries like hospitals and pharmaceuticals. Rwanda is probably Africa’s cleanest nation and among the most pristine in the world. Some other countries like Italy, France and China have banned or taxed the use of plastic bags but, Rwanda’s approach is on a totally different level. People who are caught introducing plastic are accountable to be fined or to spend time in jail. Stores have been shut down and fined for wrapping bread in cellophane, their owners required to sign apology letters all as part of the nation’s environmental cleanup.

Plastic bags, which take hundreds of years to degrade, are a major global issue, blamed for clogging oceans and killing marine life. In Rwanda, the authorities say the bags contribute to flooding and prevent crops from growing because rainwater can’t penetrate the soil when it is littered with plastic. There is plenty of evidence of the negative impacts of plastic waste in international cities. Biodegradable bags are allowed only for frozen meat and fish, not for other items like fruit and vegetables because such bags still take as long as 24 months to decompose, the government says.

The nation’s zero tolerance policy toward plastic bags really encourages me to be more careful about using plastic bags and I hope that this idea is contagious for the rest of the world. Everyone can contribute to avoid the use of plastic bags by having a real bag when we go for groceries, bread, and any other goods. There is no need for a plastic bag! Let’s expand the life of the environment and let’s not wait for punishment to change our behaviors.

Photo Credit: nocamels.com

Comment on this article

ClimateYou moderates comments to facilitate an informed, substantive, civil conversation. Abusive, profane, self-promotional, misleading, incoherent or off-topic comments will be rejected. Moderators are staffed during regular business hours (New York time) and can only accept comments written in English.

6 Responses

  1. First of all, thank you for bringing up this issue! As someone who grew up in a town that has outlawed plastic bags and that has stores which charge a small fee of ten cents for each paper bag, I could not agree more. I was astonished by the wastefulness of packaging in New York City when I first arrived here. It seems that the checkout clerk assumes that the buyer wants a double bag: a plastic bag lined with a paper bag on the outside. I often tell the clerk that I do not need a bag and sometimes I get a strange look. Additionally, even for one or two items the clerks will give you the item in two bags, even though none is necessary. Although New Yorkers have a low carbon footprint per capita, I think avoiding plastics could improve this even more. I urge New Yorkers to think twice before taking a double bag – or a bag at all when going to the grocery store!

  2. In my Urban and Agricultural Land use class at Barnard College we had the opportunity to view the composting process at McEnroe farm in upstate New York. Their compost contains food waste directly from the farm and from other locations, some in New York City. The compost gradually decomposes any remaining organic waste for multiple months in large piles. Our class was asked to assist in removing the plastic pieces from the compost pile. We soon discovered that there were hundreds and hundreds of plastic bags in the compost and each piece had to be removed by hand.
    Not only do people throw plastic in the garbage, they also do not realize that plastic is not biodegradable and should absolutely not be put into food waste containers.

  3. Interesting read. I remember a couple years ago there was talk about charging for the use of plastic bags, but I have yet to see that policy implemented in NYC as yet. I recently took a trip to the UK and France and noticed that not even grocery stores offer you a plastic bag with your groceries (offered for free). In France the use of plastic bags is prohibited all together like you mentioned In fact, no matter where you went, there was always a charge for plastic bags. It pushed consumers to take a more green approach when it comes to the toxic harm that plastics have on the environment. I applauded UK and France for this approach. A few of the factors that lead to these new laws was the amount of plastic pollution washing up on beaches (10% of the world’s debris found on beaches worldwide), and secondly, the single use of plastic bags per person. The aim with charging or prohibiting the use of plastic was the reduce the number of plastic bags being used. In Ireland, the charge per plastic bag reduced the use per person from from 328 bags person/ year to 21 bags person/ year, all within five months, a 90% reduction according to the EU commission. NYC should adopt some of these policies as many plastic bags are short lived. We are served our food in them and shorty after the meal, they are thrown away. It takes about 7 minutes to sit and eat a quick meal, giving the plastic bag a lifespan of less than 10 minutes. I think it’s time for NYC to revisit charging for plastic bags. Where paper bags are concerned, it depends. Some paper bags are often coated by wax, making the whole recycling process redundant. For those paper bags that a purely paper, whatever oils they come into contact with changes the recycling process as well, this however is still a safer alternative.

    1. thanks for your detailed and informative comment, Danielle. It gives all of us pause when we are at the store, pondering what kind of bag to ask for. That is, unless we bring our own. (!)

  4. I could not agree more! I spend every day arguing with friends and family urging them to buy or use fiber shopping bags which were trying to be strongly implemented a few years ago during Obama’s presidency. For quite some time he had enforced the change from plastic to fiber and some people learned to adapt to it but not for long, although this was a weak try at enforcing a change it was a good one and it should have been kept, a change so small as such can make such a huge impact on the environment and help improve the air that we breathe, it will help decrease the pollution problem within the united states, but the majority of humanity seems to overlook this matter and act as if it is not a big deal. If it were up to me i would enforce this and many other changes to help the environment and encourage people on going green.

  5. In the past, the environment had seemed to be much greener than the present. As such, due to big social differences and new economic developments within many countries, many people do not treasure the things we have access to now. We throw away things easily and more people worry about profit rather than the quality and durability of items. When speaking of plastic bags, we can see many are wasted or not used! The ‘trash’ we throw away easily has impacts on our environment that we are not aware of, or rather are slowly becoming aware of. So this post is the type of question we should ask ourselves when using temporary resources.

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