Posted on

Let’s Bag Plastic Bags

This op-ed piece was published on Mar. 3, 2018 in The New York Times:

All it had taken was a moment’s distraction. In a well-practiced sleight of hand, the cashier had double-bagged in plastic a dozen eggs, which were already encased in two protective layers of plastic. I briefly contemplated appealing for the liberation of my groceries but chose the path of least resistance. The deed was done, and the purveyors of plastic had been victorious on this occasion.

It was not always thus. In the late 1970s, single-use plastic bags were seldom available in grocery stores. Since then they have become an omnipresent part of the exchange of merchandise for money, a “free” offering to consecrate the ritual. An estimated one trillion bags are used each year globally, but they are so seamlessly ingrained into our daily routines that we hardly notice. It is difficult to imagine life without them.

The average American throws away about 10 single-use plastic bags per week, but New Yorkers use twice the national average. Some 23 billion are used across the state each year — more than enough, when tied together, to stretch to the moon and back 13 times. In the short trip from store to home the utility of these bags is spent, but the bags themselves can take millions of times longer to break down in landfill.

Yes, you are correct. This is crazy and entirely unnecessary. In Ireland, my home country, plastic bags were once an essential part of daily life. They were often found polluting waterways and littering the countryside, fluttering in trees and hedges. After a 15 euro cent fee was introduced in 2002, however, annual use dropped from an estimated 328 to 14 per person by 2014. Within a year of the fee’s imposition, a national survey found that 90 percent of shoppers were using reusable bagslitter had also been reduced significantly.

Other countries have followed suit, though in a trickle, not a flood. But now political momentum is gathering across the globe to address the problems that plastics pose for the planet. Last year, Kenya banned plastic bags, becoming the latest of more than two dozen countries to either prohibit them or impose a fee for their use.

In the United States, California is the only state to have imposed a comprehensive solution to the plastic bag problem, banning single-use plastic bags in stores in 2014, an action then endorsed by voters in a statewide referendum in 2016. Dozens of municipalities have banned plastic bags or imposed fees to discourage their use, including Austin, Tex.; Chicago; and Seattle. New York State and Massachusetts may well find themselves on the front lines of the plastic bag war this year.

In January, the European Union responded with its first Europe-wide strategy on plastics, which aims to clamp down on single-use plastic items and ensure that they are fully recyclable by 2030.

All of this is part of a growing realization that our feckless use of plastics is out of control. This has become particularly evident in what is happening to the world’s oceans. In December, an important milestone was reached when 193 countries signed a United Nations resolution to monitor plastics disposal in the oceans and 39 countries committed to reducing the quantity of plastics going into the sea.

The United Nations Environment Program estimates that some eight million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans each year, while a 2016 World Economic Forum report projects that there will be more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050 if current trends continue. Plastic production and disposal also generates around 400 million tons of carbon dioxide a year globally, more than total annual emissions from Britain.

Millions of whales, birds, seals and turtles die because they mistake plastic bags for food or because they become ensnared in nets, packing bands and other items. Trillions of microplasticsend up in the ocean, with seafood eaters ingesting an estimated 11,000 tiny pieces annually. Plastic fibers have also been foundin tap water around the world; in one study, researchers found that 94 percent of water samples in the United Stateswere affected. The impact on human health from direct exposure to microplastics is unknown.

One of the most direct ways to begin to address this problem is by taking on the single-use plastic bag.

Following in the footsteps of California, Massachusetts may attempt this year to impose a statewide solution to the plastic bag problem. In December, Boston’s mayor, Martin Walsh, signed an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags in city stores. With around 60 other municipalities in the state restricting or imposing fees on these bags, the State Legislature is considering banning them.

New York is another potential battleground. Efforts by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and by Mayor Bill de Blasio to introduce a bag fee have been stymied in part by opposition from the “big plastic” lobby.

Last year Gov. Andrew Cuomo blocked a law that would have imposed a 5-cent fee on plastic bags in New York City and called instead for a statewide solution. The task force he established identified eight options in a report released in January, including voluntary initiatives, outright bans and fees. But it makes no specific recommendations.

In choosing a solution, it is important to understand the real cause of the plastic bag problem: the myth of free plastic. Retailers pay up to 5 cents per plastic bag, but the cost is hidden, passed on to shoppers through higher grocery prices. This is, no doubt, a brilliant business model for plastic manufacturers, but it has had a devastating impact on the planet.

Fees charged to consumers for each plastic bag undermine the foundation of this myth. They have a long track record of success, and not just across American cities. They have been effective in DenmarkHong KongSouth AfricaBritain and Botswana. The average Dane, for example, now uses just four single-use plastic bags a year, after the introduction of a fee in 1994.

Some see fees as a regressive tax on seniors, the sick or the poor, but these arguments do not hold water. It is unjust to charge more for staples like food so that discretionary plastic items can be offered free, especially when there are alternatives. In any case, reusable bags can be provided for those in need.

Fees set above 15 cents that flow to an environmental fund strike a good balance between flexibility and effectiveness. They can be more politically acceptable than outright bans. For example, a survey of Irish citizens revealed that a remarkable 91 percent welcomed the fee because they witnessed the drop in litter and found reusable bags more suitable for carrying groceries.

The cultural impact can be game changing. As was the case with smoking indoors, the use of plastic bags becomes less socially acceptable over time once the government moves to restrict them. Reusable bags become the norm quicker than one might imagine, and shoppers seamlessly adapt their daily routines to the new reality. Action aimed at plastic bags can pave the way for further measures to address free coffee cups, lids, stirrers, cutlery, straws and takeout packaging.

When achieved, these small changes to our daily routines can be surprisingly empowering.

Posted on

EcoWise: Don’t Just Recycle…Reduce

The recent decision by the Village of Pelham to return to weekly from biweekly recycling pickup – after residents asked for the change in the new garbage contract – is just one indication that most households in the broader Town of Pelham dutifully recycle their plastic, paper and metal.

Recycling is to be encouraged. But next time you’re hauling out your bin full of plastic bottles, you might take a moment to think about things differently. How? By figuring out how to lessen both garbage and recycling – by buying items that have minimal packaging, using refillable water bottles instead of buying the kind that can eventually be recycled, or refusing a straw with your soda.

If that sounds like a big ask, you could first focus just on reducing use of plastic, particularly single-use items. (And if you’re buying items like ketchup and detergent for the house, buy them in bulk; it cuts down on packaging.)

Why single out plastic? Because even after it’s recycled, it never really goes away. Virtually all of the plastic that has ever been made is still on the planet in some fashion. A plastic bottle takes over 400 years to decompose — a plastic straw about 200 years.

The fact is that is the United Nations has termed plastic pollution “a planetary crisis” and there’s no sign – yet — that demand for plastic is slowing down. Some 311 millions tons of plastic is produced each year, and that amount is supposed to quadruple by 2050, according to the European Environmental Bureau. Especially given that everyday items such as plastic bags and straws can’t easily be recycled, this is not a problem that can be handled solely by recycling.

And, unfortunately, there’s an even bigger issue on the horizon: whether items that are meant to be recycled will actually end up being recycled. A December story from Bloomberg News detailed a change in policy in China that is having global implications for the recycling business. The country – the biggest buyer of the world’s waste – is getting much more finicky about what recycling it will accept. The story explains: “The country is trying to curb rampant pollution with new restrictions on waste imports and shutting old industrial plants, including mills that process foreign scrap into reusable raw materials.”

While it’s unclear right now how or if this change will affect the much smaller world of Pelham recycling, the best way to adjust to an ever-changing landscape is simple: don’t just recycle, but refuse, reduce, reuse — and then recycle.


Posted on

EcoWise: Village of Pelham Moves Closer to Environmental Sustainability Commitment

One of EcoPel’s bedrock goals is to raise the environmental consciousness of local government officials in support of policies that promote a greener, cleaner Pelham.

Recently, the Village of Pelham has moved steps closer to that goal as its Board of Trustees explores the creation of a sustainability advisory board (SAB). Such a body would develop programs and recommend policies that contribute to the environmental, economic, and social sustainability of the Village.

“A sustainability board can provide more than green window dressing,” said VOP Trustee Ariel Spira-Cohen, who is spearheading the effort with Trustee Xaira Ferrara. “Municipalities that meet a number of environmental goals can receive grants for their efforts, in addition to enhancing their towns going forward.”

Though still in the exploratory stages, the board would potentially be made up of six members appointed by the mayor with trustee approval, along with a liaison from the Village government. Sustainability members might come from like-minded civic organizations such as EcoPel.

Generally speaking, sustainability boards provide non-binding advice and expertise. For instance, while residents may express interest in food-scrap composting, to put that into practice requires a relationship with local governing bodies. “We have a great civic organization here, EcoPel, but we don’t currently have a sustainability committee that is very aligned or integrated into village government like some of the other Westchester municipalities,” Spira-Cohen said.

For an example of how a sustainability advisory board might work, EcoWise reached out to Steve Wolk, chairman of the Town of New Castle SAB. In recent years, it has helped establish a town-wide plastic bag ban and coordinated a shift from dual stream recycling – which requires that paper products be sorted separately from other recyclables — to single-stream recycling, which is more efficient.

Spira-Cohen said the idea of a Pelham SAB has come up for a number of reasons, including a desire by the trustees to modernize the tree committee that is currently part of the Village code. (The duties of the tree committee are largely carried out by the Village’s private contractor.) “An SAB is more beneficial than one-off initiatives,” she noted, “because it focuses on a long-term working relationship towards a set of goals.”

Pelham Manor isn’t currently discussing the creation of a formal advisory board, according to Manor Trustee Michelle DeLillo. But she noted that the Village is serious about sustainability, as evidenced by its robust recycling and waste management program that includes electronics recycling and curbside collection for leaf composting. It is also a member, as is the Village and the Town of Pelham, in Sustainable Westchester.

Interest in sustainability and environmentally-friendly policy is growing in Westchester, and an SAB can serve as a crucial linchpin, connecting the ideas and desires of citizens to improve their communities with the municipalities that can help enact them.

Village of Pelham residents interested in serving on the proposed SAB can contact or




Posted on

EcoWise: How to Winnow the Waste Out of Your Holidays

In October, the youth group at Huguenot Memorial Church planned an event for 50 people with a key goal in mind: to generate zero waste.

According to Associate Pastor Jacob Bolton (above), the organizers asked the caterer – Modern Restaurant in New Rochelle — to deliver the food in recyclable foil tins and avoid using plastic wrap.

They clearly marked bins for recycling, composting, and regular trash. They even enlisted the help of Scarsdale’s composting activists to haul away the food scraps, since Pelham Manor does not have its own community food composting program. “What everyone realized throughout the night was nothing was going in the garbage,” Bolton said.

As we enter this month of gifts, galas — and garbage, you might give some thought to planning your own zero-waste gatherings.

The Environmental Protection Agency says Americans create 25 percent more waste during the holiday season than they do the rest of the year. While it’s hard to completely eliminate wrapping paper, boxes, and holiday cards, at least they’re recyclable.

EcoPel has culled a few handy tips to get you close to achieving that zero-waste goal:

  1. Use e-vites instead of paper invitations.
  2. Hang LED Christmas lights instead of incandescent lights, which use ten times more energy. Also consider reusable or natural decorations. Those pinecones littering your lawn could make the perfect centerpiece.
  3. Set the table with cloth napkins, china, and regular silverware – nothing plastic or paper.
  4. Serve hot beverages in ceramic mugs, rather than paper hot cups that actually aren’t recyclable because they are lined with a thin plastic coating.
  5. Turn down the heat. Once the guests arrive, they’ll warm up the house for you.
  6. Let your guests in on the zero-waste theme early. If they are bringing food, they, too, can use eco-friendly containers.
  7. Give the leftovers to your guests or to someone in need. Before tossing out those picked-over poultry carcasses and ham bones, squeeze out more nourishment by making soup stocks.
  8. Compost, if possible. If you have a bin in the backyard or other eco-solution for disposing of food scraps, paper towels, and coffee grinds, you have a much better chance of hitting the zero-waste mark.
Posted on

EcoWise: The Case Against Plastic Straws

When it comes to pollution, the plastic straw is an afterthought. But it shouldn’t be.

In fact, the humble straw creates big environmental problems. As the students involved with Pelham Eliminates Plastics noted at their October launch event at The Picture House, people in the U.S. alone use 500 million straws per day. (Source: Be Straw Free.) If such plastic habits don’t change soon, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Straws are one of the plastic products PEP is targeting in Pelham. “They’re bad for the environment, and they hurt all the wildlife,” said Russ Eustace, a sixth grader at Pelham Middle School who is a member of PEP.

Several local businesses have attempted to tackle the plastic straw problem by testing out paper versions. Unfortunately, that’s not yet a great solution.

Clay Bushong, an owner of Cantina Lobos on Wolfs Lane, said his restaurant has tried three different types of paper straws. In addition to costing more than the plastic variety, paper straws were not a big hit with customers, as they tended to disintegrate in the drinks.

Lisa Neubardt, owner of the Bakery at Four Corners, said she, too, has not found a viable alternative. “If there was a product that was economically feasible and sustainable, I would use it,” she said. The bakery does try to conserve in other ways, such as by not handing out too many napkins, she added.

If you must have a straw and want to avoid plastic, you could always carry around your own, made of a recyclable material such as bamboo, glass, or metal. But the easiest thing to do, whether ordering a drink from a restaurant or takeout counter, is to just say no to the plastic straw. As Russ Eustace said, “They’re really unnecessary.” Think about it.


Posted on

PEP Rally: Introducing Pelham Eliminates Plastics

Journalist Lauren Paige Kennedy and editor Tracey Minkin of Coastal Living magazine introduce a teen-led initiative to stop the use of throwaway plastics in Pelham.

We’d like to introduce you to PEP (Pelham Eliminates Plastics), which aims to school parents, teachers, neighbors, merchants, and friends about the FACTS on plastic waste and what it’s doing to our threatened oceans.

The group takes its inspiration, in part, from Melati and Isabel Wijsen, sisters from Bali who organized a kids’ crusade that shamed the governor into phasing out all plastic bags on the island by 2018.

Please take the #PEPpledge: Stop using SINGLE-USE PLASTICS, including plastic bags, water bottles, straws, and takeout coffee lids, TODAY. For our kids’ sakes, and their futures!

You’ll learn why in Lauren Paige Kennedy’s COASTAL LIVING Magazine feature, Meet 13 Ocean Heroes Fighting to Save our Seas. For this story she met with musician and ocean conservationist Jack Johnson and a global tribe of scientists, citizen activists, and sea legends, who together crunch the numbers on what plastic waste is doing to our planet—and who also share what we must together do: save our waters one person, one town, one state, one country, and one nation at a time.


Posted on

EcoWise: Community Composting: It Can Be Done

EcoPel Board Member Debbie Winstead (second from right) and other Pelhamites visited the Scarsdale Sanitation Department’s composting site in June. (Photo:

Last month, EcoWise focused on the composting programs at Siwanoy and Colonial Schools. These initiatives come as food-scrap composting is taking hold at a number of Westchester municipalities, including Scarsdale, Larchmont/Mamaroneck, Bedford, and soon, Greenburgh.

The benefits are numerous: It brings the food cycle full circle by turning food remains back into nutrient-rich dirt. It reduces garbage – which in Westchester, is incinerated. Down the line, it may even save money.

The Village of Scarsdale, which began its composting program in January, was the first in Westchester and is serving as a template for other communities. Interested residents buy a one-time kit for $20 consisting of a small countertop size bin, a larger bin for transferring scraps to Scarsdale’s drop-off site, a roll of compostable bags, and instructions about what is compostable and what isn’t.

The start-up costs were $1,500, and the monthly cost for having the scraps transported to a composting facility is $400. With a participation rate in Scarsdale of 15% of households — ahead of original projections –– about half of the monthly transport costs pays for itself because garbage is reduced. “It’s a really simple program, but it’s also a cheap program,” said Michelle Sterling, co-chairwoman of the Scarsdale Forum Sustainability Committee.

Scarsdale has periodic compost give-back days, when residents can pick up dirt resulting from their composting. The actual drop-off site is small – taking up three parking spaces at the Scarsdale Recyling Center. On a recent visit on a hot autumn day, no smell emanated from the site, which consists of tidy rows of thick, sealed bins. “They worked out many of the kinks so it’s a preloaded program,” said Village of Pelham Trustee Andrea Reinke, who visited this summer with interested local residents.

Mamaroneck Superintendent Nancy Seligson said commencement of the town’s program – which includes the Village of Larchmont – was “a very good and very rapid experience.” Food-scrap recycling started on September 18 with 250 residents signed up.

About 20 Westchester municipalities have visited the Scarsdale site, including the Village of Pelham, New Rochelle, Rye, White Plains, and Yonkers. “I love this program,” said Pelham’s Reinke. “The Village is really interested and we’re trying to figure out the logistics.”


Posted on

EcoWise: Elementary Schools Teach ABC’s of Composting

As the school year begins, Colonial School will become the second Pelham elementary school to start a composting program in its lunchroom. Siwanoy School began composting last year and is looking forward to building on its early success.

In so doing, both schools are teaching students a valuable lesson: that food waste doesn’t have to become trash. As it decomposes, it becomes enriched soil that helps new plants – and food – to grow.

Siwanoy implemented its program with guidance both from EcoPel and Greenacres School in Scarsdale, which began composting in 2013.

At Siwanoy, town meetings initially taught students the composting basics. But in the day-to-day, student volunteers instruct their peers during lunchtime to pour liquids into a special bin, separate out their food waste, and recycle the other materials.

This year, the school is looking to start composting of snacks in the classroom. “I think this is part of the world they’re growing up in,” said Siwanoy Principal Susan Gilbert “[The students] know that this is important to do. They have a sense of stewardship.”

Colonial plans a similar structure, with students in grades 1 to 5 applying to help others sort their lunch waste.  “When kids mentor kids, it’s always so great,” said Sydney MacInnis, founder of EcoPel, who worked closely with Siwanoy and the school district on the composting initiative.

Colonial Principal Tonya Wilson sees composting as a natural extension of existing school recycling activities, such as having kids use reusable water bottles and take food home if they don’t finish it. “We don’t produce a lot of garbage here,” she said.

The school composting initiatives come as the Village of Pelham has been exploring starting a community composting program for residents. You can read more about how that might work in the next EcoWise column.