Plastic pariah: The environmental concerns fueling NYC’s bag ban

Trash Bus (1)
New Yorkers go through 10 billion plastic bags per year, which is equal in weight to 3,040 city buses!
Illustration by John Napoli

As Brooklynites prepare to forfeit the luxury of cheap, disposable plastic bags, understanding the environmental cost of those little, flimsy conveniences may help to ease the anguish of having to lug a bunch of tote bags to the grocery store. 

As it stands, New Yorkers go through a whopping 10 billion single-use carryout bags each year — more than 1,100 per person, according to the Department of Sanitation.

Each one of these bags weighs between 4-5 grams, meaning that we use more than 44,000 metric tons of disposable plastic every year. That’s equal in weight to roughly 15,800 Chevy Suburbans, or about 3,040 city buses — more than half the city’s entire bus fleet! 

Being disposable, those bags make their way to landfills, end up strewn along coastlines, or congeal in the ocean to form nightmarish mashes of soggy plastic film, called gyres, which include the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

And don’t mistake disposable for biodegradable. While thin, plastic bags take between 400 and 1,000 years to break down, all the while dissolving into microscopic plastic particles that contaminate soil, water, and marine life. 

Sea turtles tend to suffer the most, often mistaking plastic bags for tasty jellyfish, leading them to eat the bags, which then block their intestines and cause them to starve to death. Overall, plastic bags cause the deaths of some 100,000 marine animals, according to environmental education group Conserving Now. 

In 2010, between four to 12 million metric tons of plastics found their way into waterways globally, and scientists estimate that by 2050, there will be more plastic by weight in the world’s ocean than fish!

The bags also require millions of barrels of oil to create and cost taxpayers a pretty penny to clean up. The city opens more than $12 million a year to dispose of the bags, according to the Sanitation Department.

For this reason, many jurisdictions around the world have started banning plastic bags, including New York City beginning March 1. 

More from Around New York