On Monday, Department of Sanitation (DSNY) Commissioner Kathryn Garcia joined Councilman Antonio Reynoso, advocates and staff in Williamsburg to give away free reusable bags to passersby.
The giveaway event was part of the agency’s effort to distribute 100,000 free reusable bags to city residents at 14 citywide events over the next three weeks as the state’s plastic bag ban nears.
“We really don’t want people to be using single-use paper or plastic bags,” Garcia said. “We really hope everyone brings their reusable bags, and that we begin to see them all across the city.”
In addition to the state’s plastic bag ban, which was passed last legislative session, businesses will also begin collecting a five-cent fee on paper bags.
The five-cent fees are managed by the state’s Department of Taxation, Garcia said. A portion of the fees will go back to municipalities to fund environmental education and reusable bag giveaways.
There are a dozen exemptions to the plastic bag ban, such as pharmacies providing them to carry prescription drugs, using them solely to contain or wrap uncooked meat, fish or poultry, and using them as a garment bag for dry cleaner or laundry services.
DSNY has already distributed more than 700,000 free reusable bags since 2016, Garcia said. The agency has also given them to local community boards and elected officials’ offices to give away as well.
Residents who cannot make it to one of DSNY’s giveaway events can apply online for one to be sent to their home.
Garcia said her department has been conducting outreach for the entire city. In addition to educational campaigns, DSNY has also done subway and bus shelter ads.
The commissioner said the state will also be doing outreach on radio and television.
More than 23 billion plastic bags are used annually across the state, including 10 billion per year in New York City. In the city, plastic bags make up about 2.5 percent of the city’s waste stream.
On average, DSNY collects more than 1,700 tons of single-use plastic bags per week. Each year, the department collects 91,000 tons of plastic and paper bags combined.
Garcia said they not only pollute the environment as litter on the streets, tree branches and storm drains, they also pose a threat to animals that mistake the bags as a food source.
“They’re very difficult to manage, they’re very difficult to recycle,” she said. “They end up getting all caught up in the machinery when we separate all of our recyclables.”
Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), added that plastic bags are made from fossil fuels, so if cities want to curb global warming, they should start with reducing single-use plastics.
“If we want to be serious about climate change, we all need to be a part of it,” Reynoso said on Monday. “I think this step of banning plastic bags in the city is doing just that, ensuring we’re part of the solution and not the problem.”
Goldstein noted that cities around the world, from Washington D.C. and Seattle to Paris and Dublin, have successfully made the conversion to reusable bags. He said it should be easy to do in New York City as well.
“Of course, there will be a little transition period when people get used to a new habit,” he said.
Holding up one of DSNY’s orange reusable bags, Goldstein said residents can make the transition because they know they’re doing something positive for the environment.
“March 1 begins another step down the road to a more sustainable city and a more sustainable state,” he added.