Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Tim Rowland On The Plastic Bag Ban

BYO Bag courtesy DECI am a good boy when it comes to plastics, mainly.

I do own reusable totes, many of which were given to me as swag at the 2011 national auto show for some reason. Nor do I ask for a straw if the garçon does not bring me one. Sometimes I may even thank his establishment for not passing out straws, unless I am in a particularly crabby mood, which, come to think of it, I usually am.

I view paper, reed and hemp straws with bland indifference. It seems like overreach, a lot of effort to replicate a product that is not crucial to existence. My own personal Bell Curve of Straw Appreciation peaked in the mid-elementary school grades, a time otherwise known as the Spitwad Years.

Today, of course, as straws are fading from the limelight, plastic bags are stepping up. They will be gone by March 1st in New York, and other states are certain to follow. That means we will live in a country where any mental patient can get a Ruger Mini 14 with tactical folding stock, P4 sniper scope and all the steel-core ammo and high capacity magazines that will fit into a 2011 Toyota Camry tote bag, but you can’t get a plastic sack for your pork chops. As the kids say, “whatevs.”

So I’m OK with the bag ban, but I do wonder if we aren’t patting ourselves on the back a little more than the occasion calls for.

There are more plastic bags blowing down the road than you would like to see, certainly. But America is not a primary offender in terms of ocean plastic, which is a primary driver of straw-and-bag policy. Ninety percent of it comes from 10 rivers: the Yangtze; Indus; Yellow; Hai He; Ganges; Pearl; Amur; Mekong, Nile and Niger. I don’t see the Saranac on that list. And while I’m all for leading by example, banning bags strikes me as going on a diet because your neighbor is fat.

Maybe the symbolism matters to other nations, but I doubt it. My overall fear is that the bag ban will make us feel as if we really did something when we really didn’t. Banning bags may be beneficial, but it’s not like we can stop looking for another planet to live on because we did so.

As usual though, I have some selfish and insecure motives for feeling this way. There is a gender context to the bag ban that no one mentions, and it does not show men in a positive light. Women always remember to take their reusable bags into the store with them, much in the way they always remember to get the napkins at the sub shop. Guys? Not so much.

I had to wait for a while in a supermarket parking lot recently, and I conducted an unscientific survey. I watched women walk into the store with armloads of reusable totes, whereas the guys walked up empty handed until they got the happy little sandwich sign that reads “Don’t forget your reusable bags!” at which point they would invariably say “godDAMMIT” and stalk back to their vehicles.

Here’s my real problem with the bag ban, though: Stewart’s Shops. I’m not entirely sure I can live without Stewart’s plastic bags. They aren’t plastic bags, really, they’re more like luggage. Big, heavy duty and eminently reusable. I use them for everything from lunch to cat litter and, because I’m not skilled in the kitchen, lunch that tastes like cat litter.

And where is the cat litter supposed to go now, in an NPR tote bag? Please. At a grocery store last weekend they were offering paper bags and charging a nickel a piece for them. I’m OK with that, too. Paper bags make good fire starters, although then you have to think of the environmental damage to the air vis-a-vis the environmental damage of a rogue plastic bag that ends up in the nostril of an apex predator.

I am also old enough to remember the days when plastic bags were first coming into use, and the carbuncular philosophy student who was bagging your groceries would ask, “paper or plastic, sir?” At the time, plastic was the environmentally accepted choice, since its fabrication did not destroy trees. The irony is that if you asked for paper back then, they would look at you as if you’d just thrown a bucket of turpentine into a nest of fledgling eagles.

So here would be my legislative solution: Plastic bags, good ones, should be subjected to World War II style rationing coupons. You get, I don’t know, four bags a month, and they’ll find their way into the trash at some point, it’s true, but you will also be incentivized to use them several times over for dry cleaning, or as bathroom trash can liners or, if you are a Baltimore Orioles fan as I am, to put over your head.

You can take most of my plastic and I won’t care. But you can have my Stewart’s bag when you pry it from my cold dead hands.

Photo of BYO Bag courtesy DEC.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

60 Responses

  1. adkresident says:

    The bag ban makes emotional people feel good.
    Look on line, you can buy 10,000 bags for a penny each,
    do so any you will be good for a while

  2. Sula says:

    I’ve always reused plastic bags for garbage. Now, one will have to buy plastic garbage bags, which seems a bit counterproductive, because they’re still plastic bags except now they cost money when they used to come free with the groceries, and most supermarkets have a bin for recycling them. As for kitty litter, there are flushable litters. World’s Best Cat Litter, which is made from corn, is one choice. It is dust-free, clumping, doesn’t smell (assuming you scoop the poop every day) and lasts a lot longer that clay cat litter.

    • Dana says:

      Careful what you flush when you have a septic system. Just because you can flush it doesn’t mean you should!

      • Sula says:

        You are right. I’m aware of that. I am currently living in NYC, but when I move, shortly, to Upstate NY, where I do have a septic system, I won’t be dumping kitty litter down the “terlet”! Thanks for mentioning this. It occurred to me after I posted that I should have been more cautionary.

        • Michelle says:

          LMAO!!! “Terlet”!

        • LeRoy Hogan says:

          I’ve seen on CBS News, the NYC residents treat their toilets like a garbage can and the septic system suffers from fatbergs. Yes not meaning to say Sula does that.

          • Sula says:

            No, I do NOT do that! From what I have read, the majority of the “fatbergs” come from commercial establishments, such as fast food joints and bodegas. If anyone in my antedeluvian building were to do such a thing, the perpetrator would be found out and required to pay for damages, as well as possibly chased out with pitchforks and flaming torches. It was discovered that the septic system at our Adirondack camp had a clogged pipe which upon inspection turned out to be filled with dental floss! I don’t use dental floss but obviously someone else did, and lots of it, but apparently didn’t realise that stuff doesn’t biodegrade. So, beware of flossbergs, too.

  3. Randy Fredlund says:

    When the family retreats to suburbia or urbia, Rover needs plastic bags. There is a required task for which paper or reusable totes just won’t do. We’ll be buying plastic bags which will be filled and sent to the landfill, for sure, after our current stock of 10,000 bags runs out. Rover’s output is quite amazing.

    But seriously, it seems that we already have a good solution which works quite nicely, and has been tested for years. There are almost no beer cans rolling down the road these days, because they have deposit value. Why don’t we put a nickel deposit on the bags? And we’ll generate more jobs at the recycling centers!

    • Michael Maute says:

      I have to respectfully disagree that there are almost no beer cans rolling down the roads these days. I’m a suburb road runner and will routinely see 3-4 dozen beer cans and plastic soda bottles in roadside ditches on a 2 mile run. I rarely ever see plastic bags along the road while running.

      • Randy Fredlund says:

        Wow, you must live in a more affluent neighborhood. The kids and the homeless generally take care of them in my neck of the woods.

        • Boreas says:


          Homeowners/landowners also have to clean up the non-deposit messes from idiots. I probably average 1-2 Bud Light cans thrown on my front yard per week, not to mention McDonalds bags, cups, and empty cigarette packs. Much of this trash comes from yahoos who ‘dispose’ of their trash in the bed of their pickup truck and let gravity and the wind disperse it. “Hey, it isn’t littering if I don’t throw it out the window, right?”

        • Sula says:

          In my neck of the woods (Northern Columbia/Rensselaer County) there are discarded beer cans and soda bottles in the ditches everywhere on our country road. One could easily fill a pickup truck just on my two-mile evening walk. Perhaps the kids and the homeless haven’t the wherewithall to drive around picking up cans and bottles.

          • Boreas says:


            Rest assured this trash is everywhere. Many highways and roads are routinely cleaned by organizations and volunteers – not just the indigent. I commend them! Any organization want to take over the road I live on?? My arthritic back won’t last much longer.

            • Adirondacker says:

              This begs the question regarding Randy Fredlund’s statement above. The “good solution” appears to be that the homeless/poor kids/landowners are cleaning up the mess.

              I would suggest that the intent of the Bottle Bill was to create an incentive for folk not to litter and to reduce the waste stream into landfills. It was not to create a capitalistic situation where the free-market would create entrepreneurs to pick up and redeem the bottles and cans that the underage drinkers and littering degenerate toss out their windows.

              • Randy Fredlund says:

                Not sure what the full intent was when implemented, but it seems that the bottle deposit does both. It provides incentive not to litter in the first place, and also an after the fact opportunity for those in need.

              • Suzanne says:

                I’m not sure where you’re going with this, so please forgive me if I don’t understand. I’ve lived in NYC for my entire adult life and also have a home Upstate, and have watched people scrounging through the trash to collect redemable cans and bottles. I don’t regard these folks as “entrepreneurs” but just poor people attempting to supplement their meager income by working. (Dragging a cartload of cans and bottles is work.) I’d rather have them get the money than having the city dump it. I agree with Randy.

                • Boreas says:

                  I don’t buy the premise that deposit laws reduce litter. Reducing litter may be a potential talking point to get deposit bills passed, but in reality, the loss of a nickel is no deterrent to a seasoned litterer. Recycling and redemption aren’t really in their lexicon. Change the deposit from a nickel to a buck and you may see fewer roadside “deposits” – or better yet, fewer purchases of plastic bottles.

                  • Suzanne says:

                    Well, when I visited my husband’s grave in the KV cemetery to plant flowers over Memorial Day, my cousin disappeared into the woods. Eventually, he emerged from the underbrush carrying a big bag of cans and bottles. “There’s a nickel deposit on each one of these,” he said. He loaded them into his pickup truck and took them back to Rhinebeck for recycling.

                    • Boreas says:

                      Perhaps I should have said “reduce litterING”.

                      Another person who isn’t too concerned about losing their deposit is the person drinking and driving. Thank the open container laws for that.

                  • Anita Dingman says:

                    I agree. The deposit should be at least 10 to 25 cents depending on the size of the bottle.

            • Charlie S says:

              Have you tried apple cider vinegar in water with honey Boreas?

            • Charlie S says:

              Suzanne says: “..have watched people scrounging through the trash to collect redeemable cans and bottles. I don’t regard these folks as “entrepreneurs” but just poor people attempting to supplement their meager income by working.”

              > There’s a 60-something poor bloke in my neighborhood who just two years ago was bringing in $500. a week by collecting cans in the area where I live within a radius of five miles or less. He has it down to an art evidently. He rides a bicycle through the neighborhoods while everyone sleeps, fills up tall plastic bags, and I must say he is a most peculiar sight with those big bags on his bike as he pedals down the road while the stars, and sometimes moon, are out. He knows where the events are in local parks on summer days so that he will go there in the wee hours and pick the cans and bottles from trash containers. I’ve seen him on winter mornings in the witching hours riding his bike down my road, streetlamps lighting up his form as he rides under them. He brings his catch to a recycling center not far away (rides his bike to it.) I saw him recently again one early morning and he said he is making less which I attributed to his arthritis, age, and incapacity to get around like he used to, but he still pulls-in over $400. a week. He admits, “it’s a lot of work.”

      • Wendy Taylor says:

        Same here Michael.

  4. Boreas says:

    Stewart’s bags rule!

  5. Thetruthwins says:

    Let’s play a little game with this article I like to call “count the logical fallacies”. Bonus points for finding the flat out lies and disinformation.

  6. Scott says:

    I recycle everything possible and that includes every kind of plastic bag and plastic wrap. I dutifully bought tote bags but my fear is with the plastic bags gone from the stores the recycle boxes for plastic bags will disappear too (even thought the law says stores still need to accept plastic recycle bags). Comparing purchasing firearms to getting plastic bags is super absurd. Almost nobody throws guns out to impact garbage dumps. And who would put a sniper scope on a Mini-14 anyway ?? Firearms rights are protected by state and federal constitutions and plastic bag rights are not. I strongly recommend the pine pellet cat litter since you can recycle and use it as fertilized compost.

    • Sula says:

      I’ve tried the pine pellet cat litter, thinking it was a great idea, and found that it quickly turns into sawdust which the cats lick off their paws (not so good for them) and then tramp all over the house, leaving sawdust everywhere, so I wasn’t a fan. Perhaps your cats are neater than my two slobs. Also, I wonder about composting–cat and dog poop and urine aren’t necessarily what one would want as garden fertilizer. How long does it take to decompose into usable fertiliser?

      • Scott says:

        I scoop the poop daily and scatter the poop around in my woods daily. I replace the pine cat litter when it becomes sawdust. I mix the used cat litter across a large compost pile with lots of plant and grass clippings, small twigs, wood stove ash, and some vegetable waste. My compost area has good open southern exposure and I get lots of precipitation where I live. It seems like in two years it is pretty good for use. The cat urine litter is high in nitrogen.

  7. LeRoy Hogan says:

    I seem to forget to bring in my bags to all kinds of stores. Now thinking if you are on vacation, you will not have your bags for the tourist stores.

  8. Randy Putnam says:

    Thanks for making my morning a lot more blissful! Brought tears to my eyes, and not the sad kind. And yes, Stewarts bags rule!!

  9. Wendy Taylor says:

    I think its great-nothing wrong with taking care of our environment. Its a change and we’ll get used to it.

    • Ben says:

      I agree. Change is difficult for most of us. The “guy yelling dammit” upon approaching the grocery/convenience store will be eventually dead and the following generations won’t know about plastic bags at stores because totes and paper will be the new norm. Now, let’s get to upping the deposit cost on all those cans and bottles that find their way to our roads and front yards.

      • Gerry Rising says:

        Perfect response. I lived outside Manchester, England for a time 30 years ago. On my first trip to the grocery, I lined up my purchases on the counter and waited for them to be bagged. “We don’t provide bags,” said the clerk, but he managed to find a cardboard box for me to use. After that I just got used to what was expected. We adapted to seat belts and kids’ car seats. We can certainly handle this.

        • Sula says:

          In the little mountain village where I spent a summer in Northern Ireland, groceries were wrapped in newspaper and the package neatly tied up with string. The newspaper was later cut up into squares and hung on a piece of wire in the outhouse, to be recycled yet again as toilet paper.

  10. sherry says:

    My Maine Coon who lives in NYC is seriously thrilled this column has gone to the cats.

  11. Maureen E. Donovan says:

    All of this, the cleaning up of our roads and streets and rivers begins with ME. I will have a ripple effect and it may start slowly but… over time, it will exponentially ever increasing in effect, become the norm. No more disposable plastic. We got along fine without it for centuries and we can again. Former NYS (Northern NY in St. Lawrence Co) and to me, this portion of NY, of America, of the world is home. Still, I consider myself a global citizen so I care about our beautiful planet and all of the people on it.

  12. Maureen E. Donovan says:

    All of this, the cleaning up of our roads and streets and rivers begins with ME. I will have a ripple effect and it may start slowly but… over time, it will exponentially ever increase in effect, become the norm. No more disposable plastic. We got along fine without it for centuries and we can again. Former NYS (Northern NY in St. Lawrence Co) and to me, this portion of NY, of America, of the world is home. Still, I consider myself a global citizen so I care about our beautiful planet and all of the people on it.

  13. Skip Wells says:

    Hilarious and absolutely spot on!

  14. James Marco says:

    There are two sides to every discussion. Using any plastic bag once, twice or even 10 times is still using the oil industry as a non-renewable source. Whenever I use an oil product, I need to ask myself if I need to use it and is there an alternative. Even electric vehicles are a cheat if the ultimate production of electricity is from burning gas, oil, or coal. Anyway, plastic bags are a minor part of a major climate problem. Just because we CAN eliminate them a cursory examination of the products tells you that even reusable bags are 99% made from an petroleum product. Yes, we reduce the environmental load, but it is still a matter of we are USING the oil to create a reusable bag at the bottom line. This is the same as reusing a Stewart’s bag a few times…no difference. Using natural products, cotton, wools, linen, etc would help more. But, even these have their own environmental loads (fertilizers are usually a petroleum product.)

  15. Kevin says:

    Scoop the poop every day…..funny. I keep a cardboard box in my truck. Wheel the goods to the truck, put in box, put cart in the rack, done. I like the box better than the bags anyway. The real problem is all the plastic wrapped items in the box. But I bet there would be overall, more waste/spoilage/disease without it.
    And about recycling. Are our recyclables just being thrown on the dump with the rest of the trash?

    • Boreas says:

      “Are our recyclables just being thrown on the dump with the rest of the trash?” That is about the only place they are NOT being dumped in bulk. Many localities require recycling now, but without adequate recycling capabilities! The “recycling industry” seems to be woefully small – apparently no money in it. Therefore much recyclable material is shipped out of town, out of state, and out of the country. I believe China has stopped accepting foreign recyclables, leaving smaller countries with fewer resources as our only hope, since the US has no will to do it. Swirling, toxic, plastic islands in the oceans the size of small countries are growing by the minute. Out of sight, out of mind.

  16. Frank says:

    OK, boomer. I respectfully disagree. If plastic bags are so important to you, you could have been stockpiling them for years. I know the cupboard below my sink used to fill to capacity with them a long time ago, before I realized how much easier and better (in all ways) carrying cloth bags to the store is. The world is changing and will leave people behind who are stuck in the plastic past. PS- I appreciate your attempt at humor but you try too hard.

  17. Warren Harman says:

    The Orange Bag

    The Kinney’s bag is a thing of beauty.
    It already does double duty.
    We use it to carry stuff home from the store
    And then we use it for so much more.
    We use it to carry our books and our lunch,
    The bags are big they can carry a bunch.
    Buying reuseable bags brings us to tears
    Kinney’s has been giving them away for years.
    Warren S. Harman 2-18-20

    • Beth Rowland says:

      Mr. Harman, you are wonderful! Love your poem.

      • Warren Harman says:

        What makes a bag reusable? Is it the construction or the price or the user? Is a store allowed to give away reusable bags? How many times does a bag have to be used to be considered reusable? I submit that the Kinneys plastic bag is as reusable as any store bought bag. I think that it is more about the user than the bag.

  18. William G Ott says:

    My gripe is gift wrapping garbage in plastic. We bring the stuff home in the bags that we dutifully recycle. Leftovers are interned in another brand new bag which will not be recycled. We treat our garbage better than our president. (Nobody has wrapped him in plastic yet.) So I started dumping the trash into the big can, leaving the bag in the kitchen container. Occasionally the bloody remains of a once living animal will draw attention to my desire to save the world. I will not be deterred. Mr. Tim Rowland, you have hit home with me, making me laugh out loud.
    Seriously, the BagBan brings environmental discussion up front.

  19. Charlie S says:

    Michael Maute says: “I rarely ever see plastic bags along the road while running.”

    Maybe they blew off from a west wind and found a hid haven. Plastic bags are a major problem and it took them long enough to start doing something about it! I see them stuck on limbs thirty feet in the air, ten feet in the air. They’re everywhere! You cannot get away from them. They’re in the oceans too as you all heard….whales and are consuming them. These people who whine at the thought of their plastic bags being taken away…. proof of how self-serving and shallow we have become. We are not good stewards of the Earth….the only home we know. Maybe if we disorganize religion we’d start doing what’s right!

  20. Meredith says:

    Here’s a fact: this morning, 3/1, at the drug store the clerk tried to put my purchases in a plastic bag. Drug stores aren’t effected by the ban? I also wish the Gov had included plastic straws, cups and single-use water bottles, for starters.

    • Boreas says:


      I think “drugs” are exempt, because of privacy issues. I don’t know if that is just prescription drugs or any drugs. The drug store in general? Probably not exempt.

  21. Charlie S says:

    Sula says: “I’ve tried the pine pellet cat litter, thinking it was a great idea, and found that it quickly turns into sawdust which the cats lick off their paws (not so good for them) and then tramp all over the house, leaving sawdust everywhere, so I wasn’t a fan.”

    I found Feline Pine to be better than all other cat litter. My darling Henry never licked his paws after he was done scraping his box after doing his duty. Your cat is different, not all cats the same. Individuality comes in animals too! No odors with Feline Pine, and even when it crumbles to dust its use could be extended if need be. Very easy to clean up! Never any mess left in the litter box. Of course there would be some cleaning up outside of the box depending on your setup, but that’s par for the course.
    I miss my Henry darling whom I named after Thoreau! He was the most individual of cats we had such a wonderful relationship together he and I….for sixteen years. He was there through some of the most significant transitions in my life. He taught me what unconditional love really means! I will never forget him! He has been gone four years come September 6 I miss him dearly still. I still leave music on for him in my place whenever I step out for the day. I miss him at the window when I walk up! I think about him every day, I talk to him every day. I will love him always!

    • Sula says:

      Charlie, I’ll still stick with “The World’s Best,” which clumps–bonus– and is made from corn. My guy Dorjee likes to root around in the litter and scattered Feline Pine all over all over the place. One of my friends, to whom I had suggested Feline Pine, had the same problem. I loved the idea but it just didn’t work for us. As you point out, all cats are different. (Some of them are real different!) I am so sorry to hear of the loss of your Henry. Two of my Siamese, Buzzy and and my Mother’s cat Biffy, whom I in took after her passing, lived to be 21. They were in good shape until their last few months when they developed kidney failure, a horrible ailment which is especially common amongst Siamese. If you haven’t already done so, I might suggest that you go to your local animal shelter and look for a new companion–there are so very many cats in need of a home, especially full-grown cats. I have never bought a cat–all have been rescues, including four Siamese and a beautiful and brilliant Abyssinian girl. You won’t forget Henry, but you and a new friend could be happy together.

      • Charlie S says:

        Thanks for your suggestion Sula, a suggestion many people have offered. It’s not that simple. For one… I’m done with cats as pets, unless veterinarian care was free somewhere as I cannot afford them people’s bills. I spent a lot of my hard-earned dollars on my darling Henry, $800. here, $400. there, $1100. over there….. and though it broke me at times it was worth every penny to me as Henry was priceless to me. No qualms whatsoever going broke for his care, but I do not wish to go though veterinarians ever again, which is unfortunate as much as I love cats and many cats need good homes. It wont be long when only the rich are going to be able to afford to have pets.

  22. Charlie S says:

    Boreas says: “Many localities require recycling now…”

    Recycling is just another excuse to create more plastic Boreas.

  23. Charlie S says:

    Randy Putnam says: “Stewarts bags rule!!”

    I’ve seen the Stewarts bags Randy. They’re cheaply made (at $10. each) and wont last, and they seem to me to me a lesser form of plastic. Cloth is the best as they last for years on end. So we go from being rid of cheap plastic bags to cheap other bags which will add to the heap piling high in our dumps. We have no conception of quality anymore Randy, every thing we do is done on the cheap. There was a time when nothing went into a dump as every thing was used over and again. Of course we don’t wish to go back to them days… we wouldn’t survive as we are too conditioned into the plastic fantastik reality we are!

  24. LeRoy Hogan says:

    Speaking of cloth bags, hemp fabric would be cool.

  25. John Loewer says:

    I just wrote the Governor on this topic. We have always used “paper in plastic” for our under the sink garbage and then put these in our garbage can. Seemed more environmentally friendly than the 40 gallon trash bags the neighbors use. Since we just ran through our supply we just purchased heavy plastic “kitchen bags” at $16/100 bags. It doesn’t seem like these, and their contents will rot very fast.

    Seems like we have created a problem.

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