New Yorkers: Bring Your Own Bags

Outside of City Hall, people were protesting the use of plastic bags.

By Salome Burdiladze and edited by Professor Jamie Longazel—New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently introduced a bill to ban plastic bags statewide. Specifically, the proposed bill prohibits stores from offering customers single-use plastic bags. Many environmentalists are rejoicing over the plastic ban. However, the question remains: how can those who are distrustful of government be persuaded that such regulation is not only beneficial to all but also necessary?

It turns out that I have been studying a similar law that was passed in Suffolk County and went into effect at the beginning of this year. After previous attempts to pass state-level legislation failed, Suffolk County passed Local Law 27, which aims to reduce plastic consumption by requiring all the stores in Suffolk County to charge customers a fee of five cents on plastic carryout bags, and encourages the use of reusable bags.

I found that there was, in fact, much support for this law, but also that some people were skeptical. Interestingly, their skepticism seemed to stem not from their being “anti-environment” but from the predetermined views they had about other social issues and institutions, which became the lens through which they viewed this issue.

Laws regulating plastic consumption are essential because plastic pollution is a significant environmental hazard. Plastic accumulates in the environment, contaminating water and soil, and endangering marine ecosystem. Ocean turtles, for example, often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. Over 50% of the turtles end up dead since their bodies cannot digest the plastic, blocking their intestines and leading to starvation. Disposal is an issue as well. To clean up the plastic contamination, New York State spends between $300,000 and $1 million a year.

A turtle mistaking a plastic bag for a jellyfish.

A turtle mistaking a plastic bag for a jellyfish.

Yet despite facts like this, many people are still skeptical.

Scholars studying law and society often discuss the idea of legal consciousness. Legal consciousness refers to the way individuals recognize and respond to the law in their daily lives. When scholars study issues through the lens of legal consciousness, the question is not so much about “what people think”; rather, it is about “what they think with.” What bigger ideas or principles do people bring into their thought process when making sense of an issue? Often, feelings and actions regarding law are strongly influenced by political dispositions, socioeconomic status, and the specific relationship one has with the state.

To conduct my research, I visited two grocery stores in Suffolk County. I observed customer behavior at these stores and asked them questions about the law and whether it affected their shopping habits.

What I found was that the majority of people viewed the legislation regulating plastic consumption as objective and fair. They considered following and supporting the law their duty as law-abiding citizens and environmentalists. Many even joyfully declared: “I always used reusable bags! It should have been a law long time ago. The amount of garbage we produce is hazardous for the environment. Plastic is not reusable, so it’s a waste.” One young man, way ahead of Governor Cuomo, declared: “It’s a great law. I think they should go further with it. I mean, Nassau [County] doesn’t have it, and five cents is not a big deterrent either. They should make it universal maybe. It’s good for the environment.”

However, I encountered skeptics, too. I found that people regarded the law as unfair because they considered it only to be beneficial to the government and retailers. One person said that he felt he was being robbed of his money by retailers who would keep the surcharges. However, he claimed that if the surcharges were collected for a good cause, such as homeless shelters, he would pay them without a second thought. Another even claimed that the law seemed so limiting that she thought she was losing her freedom and even mused “what are we gonna lose next?” The fact that Suffolk is the only county in the state with such a law in place provokes sentiments of unfairness and oppressiveness amongst those who already distrust the government.

So what does this mean for Governor Cuomo’s new law? Given the overwhelming support I observed, I would guess that most people will be in favor of it. Plus, by eliminating the surcharge and implementing the law statewide, the skepticism could be quickly eliminated.

That said, I think Governor Cuomo still has some work to do to “sell” this law to those who are skeptical. For instance, his office might consider figuring out ways to assure people that this law is good for everyone and good for the environment and not an instance of “government intrusion.” They might also consider taking steps to help ease people into the new routine of “plastic-less” shopping. Disruption in people’s day-to-day lives can be frustrating and might lead to a backlash against the law out of spite towards government rather than the environmental law.

I think that involving public in plastic ban discussion is vital because this law is important. It is undoubtedly good for the environment. It can also save us all much money since the state will no longer have to pay exuberant amounts on plastic clean up. I, for one, look forward to the plastic-less shopping. Moreover, if it becomes a requirement, I think we ought to think about it, not as something government “forces” us to do, but something that we are willing participants of.

Salome Burdiladze is a May 2018 Summa Cum Laude graduate of John Jay who majored in Law and Society. Jamie Longazel is an Associate Professor at John Jay with the Department of Political Science. 

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