One weird trick to actually reduce bag waste in the city

A proposal for all those stray Fresh Direct bags and the still-bad "reusable" options grocery stores are now peddling.

One weird trick to actually reduce bag waste in the city
When you've secured too many bags, I have a solution. (Photo by Callie Farnsworth)

By Tim Donnelly

“Shitty future” is a concept that we are going to keep hearing about more and more, the idea that society has ostensibly advanced, but life has gotten worse. You find it in lots of places these days: convenience store fridge screens that replaced regular, transparent glass; Airbnbs where you have to yell at Alexa just to turn on the lights; A.I. written magazine stories; basically anything Elon Musk does. 

Locally, our shitty future is apparent in the subways, where brilliant new screens fill every station with Santa cookie baking hacks, but don’t tell you when the train is coming, and every one seems to be smashed to hell (lately anyway). You also see it in New York’s three-year-old law that aimed to ban plastic bags, and imposed a fee for paper bags. Instead of reducing waste, lots of homes now just have a slowly growing collection of “reusable" bags that are basically waste on their own. 

I have a solution to make this particular future less shitty, but first let’s look at the problem and how we got here. 

The law that went into effect in 2021 was a long-fought battle for basic, simple environmental responsibility: plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes and then they essentially exist forever. They’re an environmental nightmare, all for a few moments of convenience; some of you will be eating the microplastic from those bags in your fish for the rest of your lives, all of us will probably be drinking it in our water. 

In the city, they’re basically our tumbleweeds, blowing around the streets, getting caught in our new trees and clogging our storm drains, causing even more flooding. They’re one of the most egregious forms of needless waste we create, and the law was meant to stop it. 

So yes, now you don’t get a plastic bag option at most grocery stores — but every bodega and corner store still gives them out freely. Yes, you’re supposed to pay a fee if you use a paper bag in the city — but the prevalence of self-checkout lanes and zero disincentive for lying mean that all works on the honor system, and, if we know anything about people at self-checkout lanes, it is that they have no honor. 

Stores have found cheeky ways of getting around it so no one has to remember a bag: they’re offering thin, ostensibly “reusable” bags at checkout, made of thin cloth or polypropylene (a type of plastic), the kind that Target gives out with abandon now, the kind that are clogging your stash of bags under your sink or in a closet somewhere, the ones that are not clever or pretty enough to count as fashion totes. 

Of course, a “reusable bag” only counts as such if you actually reuse it. Otherwise, it is just more waste and trash creating problems for all of us. Ergo, a shitty future: we banned an endless supply of bags and replaced them with … an endless supply of bags.

New Yorkers are left wondering what to do with all of them, but a Buy Nothing Group or food pantry (as some on Reddit suggested) can only take so many. Using a reusable tote is always better than getting a single-use bag, but building up a collection of 1,000 totes really loses the environmental plot

Other stores are just refusing to comply, and enforcement has been incredibly lacking. 

“This bill is low-hanging fruit,” Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The City. “But if we can’t effectively enforce this law, then it’s a cloudy outlook for the other steps that are needed to wean our state away from reliance on fossil fuels.”

In New Jersey, which has a stricter bag law than New York’s — stores there don’t offer you paper bags at all — they’re suffering from immense bag glut, so much that the state considered allowing paper bags again

One weird trick to a less-shitty future 

Sometimes, the way out of the shitty future is a trip back to the simple past, and in this case I’m talking about the simple act of sharing. Here is my solution that will clear out your closet bag glut, actually reduce waste and totally save your ass when you go on an unexpected grocery shopping trip. That solution is simple and could be implemented immediately: add a take-a-bag-leave-a-bag section to every store that requires bags. Easy! 

Picture it! You grab a handful of FreshDirect bags, Target gray totes, black bags from the liquor store delivery and all the ugly totes you got for attending corporate brand synergy events (only use the clean ones, please, but you definitely have enough to spare). You bring them down to the Key Foods, FoodTowns, Traders Joe, Misters Mango or whathaveyou, and drop them in the leave-a-bag-bin. BOOM, they’re gone out of your life, freeing you of the question of what to do with these totes that you feel guilty throwing away. 

The next day at work, you get a text back from your crush who says they will, actually, take you up on that offer to make your nona’s famous gravy and you are stoked, but then realize: oh no, it’s a lot of ingredients, and you have to go shopping! Armed with only your hands, you go to the grocery store and are faced with the option: do you buy yet another shitty polypropylene bag that you will never use again, or pay 5 cents a pop for paper bags that those cans of tomatoes will easily break through? But then you see it: a take-a-bag-leave-a-bag section right by the checkout lanes. In there, dozens of tote bags for you to choose from, saving you money, time and strain on your fingers. Tell your crush about it, they will be pleased. 

I belong to a coop (shout out, Greene Hill) that, like many coops, doesn’t offer its own bags. Instead everyone brings their own, but there’s also a take/leave cabinet that is flush with Target bags, monstrous Fresh Direct bags and other random totes. There is never a shortage, and there is never a demand for yet another bag. 

We won’t escape some aspect of shitty future, but before you get run over by a Cybertruck after your job laid you off because some VC assumed an AI robot could do your job, at least you won’t have to worry if you forgot a tote bag at the grocery store any more. All from the simple act of sharing.

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