How NYC’s Plastic-Bag Ban Changed Me For The Better

I used to use hundreds of plastic bags. Now I get almost none

Clive Thompson
Jul 30 · 5 min read

I like to think I’m environmentally-minded person. But I’m also lazy.

I live in Brooklyn, and for years when I’d shop at corner stores and groceries, they’d load everything into plastic bags. I carried so many bags home that I had a large cupboard crammed tight with hundreds; if you opened the door they’d pour out like Tribbles. I’d reuse some for garbage disposal, but it didn’t matter — more and more arrived at a faster pace, every week.

I knew I shouldn’t use single-use bags. I knew they were an ecological mess: That each one is used for a mere 12 minutes (on average); that they stick around for ages, clogging oceans and wildlife; that they eventually endustify into toxic microplastics.

Sure, I could have bought a sturdy reusable bag for my groceries, and stopped accepting single-use bags. I should have done that.

I knew all this!

But I didn’t, because I’m lazy. It was too much hassle to remember to bring a bag with me when I went out. And because I couldn’t be bothered to change my habits, I generated easily thousands of single-use plastic bags over years and years of shopping.

Then last year, it all ended.

New York banned single-use bags, and despite the city not being very serious about enforcing the rule, most grocery stores and corner stores in my neighborhood obeyed. They stopped handing out disposable bags. They all posted big signs saying you had to bring your own reusable bag, or you’d have to buy one from them. Some of them offered paper bags, but honestly, not many.

It was a huge hassle at first! For the first few weeks, I frequently forgot to bring a bag. So I’d stand there like an idiot, with a bunch of groceries, pondering: Should I buy another reusable bag? (I already owned one.) Or should I walk two blocks home, get my bag, and come back?

I ended wound up owning two reusable bags, and also walking back and forth home to retrieve one of them when I’d forgotten them. It felt incredibly awkward, and I couldn’t help but think: Holy moses, this plastic-bag ban is way harder on me than I expected.

“Plastic Bag Ban Rally” by Heal the Bay

Then about two months in, the problems just … went away.

My brain finally wired itself into a new habit. Every time I left the house to grab something from a store, I began instinctively grabbing a reusable bag to bring along. I made it easier on myself by hanging my two bags on a hook next to my front door. Since I see them every time I leave, it’s hard to forget.

I also bought myself a nice, rugged pannier bag for my bike — which is amazing for hauling home an absolute ton of shopping. (Seriously, it’s the Tardis of bags, people! You can shove an anvil in there, with a pool cue too.)

Either way, it’s now been over a year since NYC banned plastic bags — and they have almost vanished from my shopping. That huge cupboard is now almost empty. The other day I needed a plastic bag to hold something and had to positively hunt around my house to find one.

So, the lesson here?

From where I stand, the plastic-bag ban worked incredibly well. It literally made me a better, less lazy person! Without the ban, I’d have carried along in my bovine fashion, taking whatever plastic bags the world offered me. But the ban altered the world around me, and I had to react.

Importantly, I think, the ban wasn’t one of those little “nudges” that governments got obsessed with in the Obama years. Nudges — which attempt to get people to adopt presumably healthier behaviors by changing the options around them subconsciously, even sneakily — don’t work very well at all. No, this was just a good ol’-fashioned ban. It wasn’t subconscious; there were signs all over the stores telling me CLIVE SERIOUSLY DUDE YOU NEED TO START BRINGING YOUR OWN BAG, and when I failed to bring my own bag, there were obvious consequences.

I know there are arguments about whether plastic bag bans do more harm than good. (tl;dr: Critics say single-use plastic bags require much less energy to create than paper bags; that bans create an uptick in the purchasing of garbage bags; and that reusable bags have their own problematic lifecycle of waste and energy-use.) I’ve investigated all those critiques, but still concluded we’re far better off if we each just get a couple of sturdy reusable bags and ride ’em until the wheels come off.

Which is precisely what the ban has helped me, a lazy person, do. I know this won’t be everyone’s experience, but I don’t think I’m alone either. And frankly it feels good to not have my huge overstuffed Cupboard of Immortal Plastic! This is a personally pleasant outcome!

It also makes me have new respect for useful policies that try to fix problems. I look at all those plastic bags I used — for decades! — and think, well, that was idiotic. We should have done this ban years ago. And there are plenty more policies we can push for, including ones that would push industrial and retail giants to make more-durable and less-disposable stuff to begin with.

Sometimes we can fix things.

Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and Smithsonian magazines, and a regular contributor to Mother Jones. He’s the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. He’s @pomeranian99 on Twitter and Instagram

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Clive Thompson

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I write three times a week about tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer for NYT mag/Wired; author of “Coders” and “Smarter Than You Think”

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors