Birdie vs. Litter: NYC Takes On Trash In New Ads

New York is a trashy town. Each year, we generate over 3 million tons of residential waste. And another 3 million tons of commercial trash.

Last spring, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared war on all of this garbage. As part of his OneNYC plan, he gave the city a goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030—that’s the “0 x 30” signs you might notice on garbage trucks.

The de Blasio administration aims to achieve this goal by increasing the amount of trash that gets recycled or composted. But, the city is also trying to tame New Yorkers’ consumption habits—cutting down the amount of plastic bags, bottles and takeout cups we use will ultimately mean less trash going to landfills.

NYC mascot Birdie's ads supporting plastic bags
One of the BYO ads put out by the city.

With that in mind, the city just announced a media blitz to reduce waste and combat litter. The ads will feature Birdie, the government mascot who just starred in the city’s “B.Y.O.” (Bring Your Own) campaign. Birdie will again remind New Yorkers to “bring their own”—in this case, reusable mugs, bottles and bags. You’ll soon see the ads on sanitation trucks and at bus stops.

Can Ads Change Our Habits?

Still, you might wonder if even the best ad campaign can curb New York’s penchant for creating waste. City officials answer this with a clear “yes.”

According to GreeNYC, New Yorkers had “overwhelmingly positive feelings” towards Birdie’s first B.Y.O campaign. It even increased their feelings of responsibility for reducing waste: 14% of New Yorkers reported that it got them into the habit of carrying reusable bags, mugs and bottles; 36% reported that they now intend to always carry reusable bags; 42% intend to always carry a reusable water bottle; and 27% intend to always carry a reusable mug.

Still, getting 9 million New Yorkers to change their habits will probably take more than ads. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection is pitching in with a fleet of 500 new or repaired public water fountains and water bottle refilling stations across the five boroughs.

Trash cans will also be part of the solution. For now, many city trash cans are part of the problem—they’re teetering mountains of waste. So, as part of this new push, the Department of Sanitation is calling on New Yorkers to Adopt-a-Basket through a program that teams local residents, businesses and community groups with the city to monitor and change liners in trash baskets on busy streets.

Spare Our Waterways

Along with sparing landfills and streets, the city also hopes this new campaign will help keep our local waterways clean and healthy. After all, some of that errant trash makes its way into sewers and then winds its way into larger waterways. That leaves a lot of “plastic in our harbor and ocean…[which] is an assault on the environment,” says Judith A. Enck, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We are essentially turning our waters into a landfill,” Enck said. “The best way to remove trash from our waters is to keep it out in the first place. We need to reduce waste at the source. NYC’s Bring Your Own is a terrific initiative that should be repeated in other communities.”

NYC’s Plastic Bag Bill Lives Despite Mayor’s Ambivalence

New York City’s “Plastic Bag Bill” is not dead. Stuck in legislative purgatory since late 2014, the bill has seemingly gathered momentum in recent months—but will it be enough to push the Mayor off the sidelines?

Councilmember Brad Lander of Brooklyn has been holding summertime reusable bag giveaways, including one last week in front of City Hall. Lander and other supporters of the bill, including Councilmember Costa Constantinides, are putting bags in the hands of New Yorkers—perhaps persuading some folks who are reluctant to pay for a once-free plastic bag.

But, one crucial ally is still missing: Mayor Bill de Blasio. While the recent OneNYC Plan commits the city to dramatically reducing plastic bag waste, the Mayor has offered scant details on how that’ll happen. For now, it’s not the proposed bag bill; the Mayor has steadfastly refused to weigh in on the legislation.

Co-sponsored by Lander and Councilmember Margaret Chin, the Plastic Bag Bill would require New York City stores to charge 10 cents for every paper and plastic bag they give out. Stores keep the fee. There are exemptions for meat and produce items, as well as for New Yorkers using the WIC and SNAP programs.

At the City Hall giveaway, Lander said he was “hopeful” the Mayor would “finalize his position” in the next few months.

The legislation needs a mere four more votes to pass in the City Council—what’s holding de Blasio back?

Reason #1: Is It Basic Math?

Plastic bags wave from a tree in New York City.
Plastic bags wave from a tree in New York City.

Perhaps it’s simple political math: with his poll numbers faltering and a recent string of political misfires, the Mayor may be reluctant to throw weight behind another seemingly unpopular measure.

A recent poll by NBC News 4, The Wall Street Journal and Marist College sure makes the bill sound unpopular: 63% of respondents opposed the proposed 10-cent charge.

But at last week’s giveaway, Lander noted that he talks to numerous New Yorkers at similar events and “everyone agrees: something needs to be done.”

The numbers bear this out. New Yorkers throw out 5.2 billion plastic bags each year, which costs the city over $12 million a year to transport to landfills. And at last Thursday’s event at least, New Yorkers seemed pleased to get reusable bags and receptive to the idea of changing ingrained habits.

Reason #2: New Yorkers Love Free Plastic Bags?

The Plastic Bag Bill would place a 10-cent fee on each bag handed out by retailers.
The Plastic Bag Bill would place a 10-cent fee on each bag handed out by retailers. Photo credit: William Miller.

As Councilmember Lander conceded, New Yorkers are reluctant to pay for something that used to be free.

But is this a perverse bit of New York entitlement? Do we think we’re owed free plastic bags? Are we simply too stressed to remember to bring reusable bags with us? Or, are we all so cranky from other urban inconveniences that we resent yet another expense, albeit a seemingly modest one?

We certainly don’t seem to think the bags are worth the money. In his recent opus on the bag battle, New York Magazine’s Adam Sternbergh noted that “(O)ne paradox of the pro-bag position is having to argue that plastic bags are a valuable commodity that people nonetheless aren’t willing to pay a few cents for.”

There are some folks who re-use the bags as trash liners and makeshift tote bags. Virtuous as this may be, plastic bags can only be re-used for so long before they end up in the trash. Some folks also claim the bags don’t lead to litter, a charge that’s hard to square with Bag It NYC’s map of errant plastic bags.

Reason #3: Is It Government Over-Reach…Or An Attack on the Poor?

Opponents have done a good job re-branding the bill as a tax and another “nanny-state” overreach. While the ten-cent charge is a fee, not a tax (the dime goes back to store owners, not the government), New Yorkers may generally be skeptical of government efforts to re-shape habits. Witness the fate of former Mayor Bloomberg’s over-sized soda ban.

And, despite exemptions for New Yorkers using food stamps and WIC, there have been charges that the proposed fee disproportionately targets poor and minority residents, an assertion that has to give pause to a Mayor who won office in part by promising to end New York’s yawning income gap.

It also might explain City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito’s reluctance to endorse the fee. A leading Bronx reverend recently urged the Speaker to “sack” the fee lest it “push vulnerable families, seniors and immigrants from slipping below the poverty line.”

Councilmembers Brad Lander and Costa Constantinides hand out reusable bags to eager New Yorkers.
Councilmembers Brad Lander and Costa Constantinides hand out reusable bags to eager New Yorkers. Photo via Brad Lander.

This puts a sharper focus on Lander’s bag giveaways. Getting free reusables into the hands of New Yorkers might put a friendlier face on the bill, showing that the fee is not part of a government-engineered “stick” meant to beat New Yorkers in to better habits.

Rather, the city is willing to help its citizens make practical, achievable changes that will curb waste and save money. This sort of community outreach worked in Washington D.C., where a recent 5-cent fee was much more enthusiastically embraced.

We’ll see if there are more bag giveaways here…and if they stir the Mayor and Council Speaker to some sort of action.

6 Burning Questions About NYC’s Plastic Bag Bill

Though it might be caught in a tree, NYC’s proposed Plastic Bag Bill refuses to die. Supporters have pushed New York’s City Council, and the Mayor, to pass the bill by Earth Day (April 22). Opponents call the bill a regressive tax on low-income New Yorkers and shop owners.

What’s the deal with the bill? Let’s look at some key questions.

What Would The Bag Bill Do?

The bill would require all retail and grocery stores to charge 10 cents per each plastic or paper bag used by you, the customer. That means if you go to a store and use five plastic bags, you’d pay 50 cents.

Certain places would be exempt: restaurants, street food vendors, and state-regulated wine and liquor stores. Also, produce, meat, and bulk food bags would still be free.

Ach! They Want More Of My Money?

The bill’s sponsors, Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, don’t want your money—they want to change your habits. They want you to stop and think before you automatically get a plastic bag at the bodega for a single bottle of water. This tactic (or, negative externality—inevitable hat tip to Planet Money) has proven effective elsewhere. Washington D.C. saw a 50-70% reduction in bag use after they passed a 5-cent tax.

Wait…Is This  Another Tax?

Nope, not a tax. It’s a charge. Consumers pay it. Store owners collect it and retain the revenue without record-keeping requirements. The City, quite purposefully, is kept out of the picture.

Remember, New York City can’t levy a tax without the State’s ok.

Where Does The Money Go?

Store owners keep the 10-cent-fee to help foot the bill for stocking the bags. This also helps lawmakers avert lawsuits: since the money never goes to the government, cities are less vulnerable to claims that they’re levying an unconstitutional tax.

What’s So Bad About Plastic Bags, Anyway?

Where to start? What about those bags stuck in trees?  New Yorkers use around 5.2 billion carryout bags each year.  Even if those bags get “properly” thrown out, they can still blow away in to unwanted places – storm drains, bushes and the ocean.

Then there’s the cost.  New Yorkers pay around $10 million per year to haul 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills in other states.

And, while you can recycle pristine plastic bags, dirty bags have no recycling value. Worse yet, they jam expensive machines at recycling plants like SIMS in Brooklyn.

Does The Bill Unfairly Impact Low-Income New Yorkers?

It does not intentionally try to be a burden, but the fear is understandable, which is why the bill’s creators have attempted to address the issue.

First, stores must waive the charge for bags if the customer is using SNAP or WIC. Emergency food providers, such as food pantries, would also be exempt from the charge.

Secondly, all households may avoid the charge at checkout by using reusable bags instead.

Finally, the proposed bill requires the City to work with community organizations to initiate a large, citywide reusable bag giveaway that includes special educational outreach events and giveaways targeted to low-income households.

Cities like Washington, DC have implemented similar bag fees and they maintain that low-income residents have not been disproportionately impacted. 




It Still Lives: There’s A Rally To Pass The Plastic Bag Bill

Remember the plastic bag bill?  It’s alive…though seemingly stuck in City Council purgatory.

The New York League of Conservation Voters and other supporters aim to push the bill forward with a rally at City Hall at noon todayThe rally has a simple message for the Council and Mayor DeBlasio: pass the bill by Earth Day (April 22).

The bill would ask customers to pay a 10-cent fee if they use plastic bags at groceries, bodegas and shops. The dime would go straight to the retailer, not the government as some detractors have claimed.

The bill stirred ardent emotions when it was debated last November. Supporters called it common sense legislation to spare NYC’s plastic-clogged waste-system and waterways. Detractors blasted it as government overreach and an unwitting tax on lower income residents.

Though the bill gained a key supporter in Council member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, it still needs additional support from the Council and Mayor.

Perhaps today’s rally will do the trick.

Pssst. There’s A Plastic Bag Hearing This Wednesday

After a quiet few months, New York City’s plastic bag bill is back. City Council legislation that would charge a 10-cent fee to consumers for single-use plastic and paper bags will be debated by the Council’s Sanitation Committee this Wednesday.

The legislation, Int. No. 209, is sponsored by Council Members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin.

Council Member Lander’s office notes that New York City pays an estimated $10 million to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills in other states every year.

Despite a State backed system for “taking back” and recycling these bags, “the vast majority” are not recycled, says Lander’s office. Cities like Washington, DC have been able to reduce plastic bag usage by 60 percent, they report.

New Yorkers use 5.2 billion paper and plastic carryout bags annually. These bags “clog up our trees and storm drains, litter our streets and beaches, [and] wind up as part of massive islands of plastic garbage in the oceans,” says Lander’s office.

Opponents of the bill say that collecting the 10-cent fee is a burden on small businesses. According to the legislation, retailers keep the ten cents charged to consumers who choose to take a single-use bag. Opponents have also questioned whether re-using grocery bags is sanitary.

Lander’s office will hold a rally and press conference on the steps of City Hall this Wednesday in advance of the 1pm hearing.

After the hearing, the five person Sanitation Committee will vote privately on the bill. A majority yes vote will send Int. No. 209 to the full City Council for a hearing. A majority no vote would resign the bill to the legislative landfill – much like Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s scuttled 2008 attempt to tax plastic bags.

Will New York go the way of Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, and tax the bag? We’ll know more on Wednesday.

Plastic Bag Watch: It’s #BYOBag Week

Can you live without using a plastic bag for a week…or longer? Proponents of a charge on single-use plastic and paper bags are challenging New Yorkers to do just that.

Surfrider NYC and a coalition of environmental and neighborhood groups have declared September 15 – 21 #BYOBag Week. The groups are encouraging New Yorkers to bring their own reusable bags to the store.

Building To A Bag Law

#BYOBag Week is designed to build support for a proposed surcharge on single-use bags. In late March, Council Members Margaret Chin and Brad Lander introduced legislation designed to “dramatically reduce single-use plastic and paper bags in New York City by forcing us to think twice about whether we really need a bag and encourage reusable bag use.”

Those second thoughts would be triggered by a 10-cent charge on every non-reusable bag provided by grocery and retail stores. Stores would get to keep the 10 cents.

Reducing Waste Or Causing E. Coli?

The bill, which aims to reduce plastic bag use in New York City by 90 percent, is currently being reviewed by the Council’s Sanitation Committee. Supporters take pains to say it’s not a tax. Rather, they point to the hefty costs associated with plastic bag use. According to their numbers, New Yorkers use 5.2 billion plastic bags annually; getting those bags to landfills costs $10 million per year.

Despite a provision that would exempt WIC and SNAP recipients from paying the charge, some opponents of the bill fear it will hurt low-income families. A lobbyist for the plastic bag industry raised concerns that reliance on reusable bags will lead to an outbreak of diseases like E. coli, a claim that Council Member Lander was quick to refute.

The proposed legislation comes at a time when other cities and states are doubling-down on single-use bags – including California, which recently banned free plastic bags.

How To Bag It

To help New Yorkers ditch single-use bags, Surfrider has arranged a number of events for #BYOBag Week, including reusable bag giveaways in Brooklyn and a student-focused rally on Tuesday, September 16th. These events lead up to the People’s Climate March, a major environmental action to be held in New York City on Sunday September 21st.

While participating in #BYOBag Week can be as simple as bringing a reusable bag to your corner bodega, Surfrider is encouraging participants to go online to register their support for the legislation.

What Are We Doing Here?

Hello there. My name is Jeff Tancil. My web shop proudly produces the New York Environment Report.

Simple as it sounds, I decided to make this site because I have way too many questions about our environment.

For instance, the plastic bags. You’ve probably seen them many times—the sad plastic bag, snarled in the branches of an unsuspecting tree. I used to ignore them. As a long-time Brooklynite, I’d gotten used to seeing them tumbleweed along the sidewalk, waft into the air on a gust of grimy bus-wind, and take up residence in one of NYC’s 5.2 million trees.

But lately, the plastic bag stuck in the tree drives me nuts. All litter does, really. I get so mad that I momentarily lose all of my carefully-concocted New York cool and I pick up the trash with my bare hands. Yes, it’s a weird (and foolish) thing to do.  I promise to regain my senses soon.

While I am picking up the litter, though, I wonder about a few things—and not just the diseases I risk contracting. Where do these bags and other litter come from? Where do they end up? How does their journey impact all of us? And what the heck ever happened to that plastic bag tax?

Perhaps you’re wondering about plastic bags as well.  Or, maybe you’d like to know about our water—is it safe to drink? Is it ok to take a dip at the local beach? What about the air where you live? Or the future of Indian Point? Or what’s going on with fracking across the state?

One New York, One Environment

That’s where New York Environment Report comes in. We’re here to fill the void in regular coverage of New York’s environment. And by New York, we mean New York City and State—it’s hard to cover one without the other.

New York does not lack for media coverage. And there’s been a welcome uptick in reporting on all environmental issues—not just climate change. But, New York’s environment is a vast, rich and complicated rubric. Many important stories are under-reported or simply not reported at all. Take a look back at our report on the use of fracking water on roads and see if you don’t agree.

From the Rockaways to the Finger Lakes, we live in a richly interconnected state. Our water comes from the Catskills, our energy flows through pipelines and transmission lines that crisscross the state, at least some of our food comes from the Hudson Valley, and at least some of the garbage that doesn’t end up in trees gets trucked and shipped upstate.

Questions and Story Pitches Welcome

So far, we’re what you might expect: a small but deeply passionate team of writers and web people. We’d love your help: New York is a big place and five people (only 2.5 of whom write for the site) can only cover so much.

If you’re a writer, please pitch us stories about the environment. It can be anything from a report on the day’s weather to a data piece about food policy.

And, if you live anywhere from Battery Park to Buffalo, please send us your questions and comments about the environment—it can be as local as the water quality of your nearest beach to statewide questions about the status of fracking.

Please drop me a line if you have any questions or suggestions. My email is jeff(at) Yes, the (at) is intentional. I hope to hear from you.

In the meantime, you’ll be happy to know that I now own a sturdy pair of gloves for when I get that uncontrollable urge to pick up litter.