(Photos: Daniel Maurer)

(Photos: Daniel Maurer)

A five-cent tax on disposable plastic bags is looming over New Yorkers, and many of us seem to be worried that a touch of mindfulness about unnecessary waste is going to turn us all into linen-pant-wearing, hybrid eastern spirituality weirdos who are really pumped up about goji berries. 


From experience, I can tell you what it’s like to have the government tread on my consumer freedom, and believe me, it’s not all that bad. In 2009, my home city of Seattle voted to impose a tax on plastic carry-out bags, and then upped the ante to outlaw them entirely by July 2017. Opposition groups stirred up some flak, mostly led by plastic companies, but slowly, the public acquiesced to environmental edict, and our waste outputs show it.

Now, New York is in a similar position, but the scales haven’t tipped to the same favor. In a hearing on January 30, state senator Simcha Felder said “New Yorkers are tired of being insulted and lied to.” The whopping charge of five cents for bodega bags apparently constitutes insult. 

Felder’s outcry paid off– the New York State Assembly voted 122-15 Tuesday to stall the legislation. If Governor Cuomo signs off, New Yorkers will be allowed to continue unfettered baggy consumption at a rate of 10 billion bags per year. The senator’s argument: Even with an exception for those on food stamps, the tax places an undue burden on low-income customers, for whom the small change adds up. A bodega owner echoed this position in an op-ed for the Daily News, saying that these kinds of regulations can hurt small business operators. Both of their positions rely on a common premise that environmental protection policies often overlook the poor. (Because Felder has such a track record of advocacy for the underdogs, striking down campaign finance reform and DREAM act legislation…) What their positions leave out is a very easy, consumer-empowered solution: just reuse the plastic.

This is easy for me to say because I hail from a Portlandia-adjacent land of smug, conscientiousness superiority, and we have already been properly indoctrinated. In New York, however, it’s more embarrassing to seem like the only ones holier-than-thou enough to tote the reusable cloth bags available at the Whole Foods checkout. But believe me, conservation doesn’t have to be a self-branding choice. It’s not an elitist regime, because environmental decay and climate disaster will screw all of us. In fact, it will screw poor people first.

If lawmakers are serious about defending people living in poverty, they should consider the injurious implications of plastic consumption, or the ongoing phenomenon of climate gentrification. Other cities around the world have already designed programs to curb disposable plastic use, like New Delhi, which recently banned these items to reduce massive garbage fires that contribute to the city’s record-setting air pollution levels, and account for an estimated two thirds of the ocean’s plastic.


My own experience moving to New York City has taught me that habituating into (or in this case, out of) conservation habits isn’t that hard. During my first months, I’d go through a minor, secret panic attack every time I was in Chinatown and couldn’t find anywhere to recycle my aluminum to-go box. (The energy input and output ratios of recycling different materials is variable, but with aluminum it’s a no-brainer; it’s much harder to extract metal ore than reuse it). I know these things because of my cultural origins. Conservation was sacrosanct, and throwing away compostables was illegal.

And now, look at me two years later! My experience suggests a counterpoint to Felder’s assumption that everyone must suffer under the freedom-trampling five cents. With a mild tinge of resignation, I toss my to-go cups in the garbage. I eat Seamless meals out of styrofoam. I’m too lazy to interject before the bodega guy puts my gum into a wasteful baggy to protect an already packaged product from the interior of my purse. We all succumb to peer pressure and un-learn good habits. Maybe the reverse is also true. I think we are adaptable enough to cultivate them.

Still, without these measures, the carelessness and guilt endure. I haven’t gone so far as to construct a well-coiffed garbage suit like that guy who protests waste around the city, but I have my own silly tactics. Below my kitchen table, you’ll find a large receptacle full of to-go bags, quantifying every time I was too lazy to arrive at the grocery store prepared. It has the added intention that I imagine I will eventually reuse them, and then the homage to my wasteful habits will slowly vanish— sins cleansed.

These neurotic tendencies, of course, seem extremely trivial when you have a former Exxon executive as Secretary of State. Perhaps they even come across as hypocrisy. (Everyone clings to moral high ground in one domain while remaining complicit in others— e.g. vegans who do cocaine…etc.) We have a lot of very big fights to wage. So, yes, the resistance will need to take on way more than plastic waste. But in the small ways that our behavior can adapt and count for small collective changes, it’s helpful to have policies push us in the right direction. And then we crush fascism, patriarchy, white supremacy!

I’ll start with the baby steps and pay five cents, or re-learn to carry my reusables.