ITHACA, N.Y. — “Paper or plastic?” is one step closer to becoming a question of the past as the State of New York works to ban single-use plastic bags, now with the support of the Tompkins County Legislature.

In a contentious 10-2 vote, the legislature agreed to support the ban, which would chip away at the 100 billion single-use plastic retail bags used throughout the country each year. Instead, boxes or reusable and paper bags — both of which would need to be purchased —  would be people’s options.

For most of the legislature, the destructive impacts plastic bags have caused on the environment, animals, and public resources (like storm drains) were enough for a vote to be cast in favor of the ban, the call for which comes after NYS officials began perusing a statewide stoppage to plastic bag use. A recent report released by the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force  states that the average family uses 1,500 single-use plastic bags a year. The total time each bag is used for is about 12 minutes.

Related: Bye to single-use plastic bags? Tompkins committee calls for statewide ban

Pointing to data gathered from California, the only  location in the country with a statewide plastic bag ban, District 2 Legislature Anna Kelles said, “The overall use of single-use bags was profoundly decreased (after the ban) from a total of 78 percent to 16 percent, as pointed out by the resolution.” 

But District 6 Legislature Mike Sigler is not convinced that banning plastic bags will have a net positive impact on the environment. He argued that paper bags have a bigger carbon footprint than plastic bags and, because of their volume, will take up a lot more space in landfills than plastic bags.

In a dramatic demonstration, Sigler brought 1,200 plastic and 1,200 paper bags to the meeting.

Holding a single box of the plastic bags, he said, “We’re trading this, for this.” On the table in front of him were three, large white boxes of paper bags. “Yeah, that’s a problem.”

While paper grocery bags are recyclable, Sigler said that people just don’t reliably recycle. He pointed to data stating that, while people do recycle cans and bottles, more than 2 billion cans and bottles went to landfills in New York State recently.

“We look at landfills the wrong way. Landfills are not an infinite resource. They’re a finite resource. They’re like oil, they’re like coal. Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” he said. “So where is all this trash going to go?”

Standing in his corner was District 14 Legislator Mike Lane.

He said he supports recycling and has since he was mayor of the Village of Dryden in the latter 1980s and 90s. He saw an “overnight” change in the landscape after returnable deposits were put on cans and bottles. Areas where smashed bottles and littered cans used to collect became mostly trash free. So he recognizes that people’s behaviors can change due to legislation.

But he doesn’t think taking away people’s options to use plastic bags is the way to go.

Lane said there are plenty of items people use that don’t get recycled, including green glass, bags used for food, Styrofoam, hard plastics, and dry cleaning bags, among many others.

“We’re not talking about banning those,” he said.

But most legislatures agreed that while banning plastic bags isn’t the only solution to reducing waste, but (delete  but) the move makes a small, local difference.

“My response or my point is that this in one step that we can take. This isn’t the answer. This isn’t going to solve the world’s problems. And it’s not going to make it so that the seals and the sea turtles don’t die from plastic. But it’s one thing that we can do locally, and it might make an impact somehow,” District 12 Legislator Amanda Champion said. “And from there, I’m committed to working on Styrofoam and working on plastic straws and working on utensils and doing all that other stuff because it’s very important to me.”

Featured photo: Legislator Mike Sigler tries to convince other legislatures that the carbon footprint of 1,200 plastic bags in the brown box he;s holding is smaller than the carbon footprint of 1,200 paper bags, in the white boxes. (Photo by Jolene Almendarez/The Ithaca Voice)

Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.