Climate Change: Who Thought Plastic Bags?

Ban Plastic

By Sofia Martinez, Climate and Society ’13

After almost a year of learning about climate change and its societal impacts, I decided it was time to take a hands-on approach to this issue.  Working with The Human Impacts Institute (HII), an environmental non-profit based in Brooklyn, New York, has allowed me to take a break from climate science and academia and take a plunge into “society.” Tara DePorte, a C&S alum, founded HII with a mission to foster sustainable human impacts through community engagement, collaboration, knowledge-building and creativity. To achieve its mission, HII is involved in educating and guiding communities in the process of becoming more sustainable.

At HII, we believe in taking small steps and simple actions that can all together make meaningful differences for a more sustainable world. Recently, we have joined local efforts to ban plastic bags in New York, with the #BagItNYC campaign. Many cities around the world have already banned plastic bags and New York is falling behind. The worldwide consumption of plastic bags is estimated to be between 100 billion to 1 trillion per year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2011 the U.S. recycled only 11 percent of plastics. That means most of the plastic bags we use end up in landfills across the nation!

You might ask yourself, what do plastic bags have to do with climate change? Let’s start with the fact that most people tend to use plastic bags once, even after knowing that they are not biodegradable and can sit in a landfill for over a century. Plastic bags are mostly made out of polyethylene, which is a byproduct of petroleum and natural gas. As plastic bags decompose into little pieces, they release greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, adding another number to the long list of anthropogenic climate change sources.

Plastic bag production also increases dependence on foreign oil reserves. The lifecycle of a plastic bag begins with the extraction of crude oil or natural gas and goes all the way to the end of that century it can take for to decompose. This tells us that we must also count emissions generated throughout the transportation of crude oil from foreign regions, the manufacturing process and the delivery to businesses.

All this shows why plastic bags are a climate change cause and raises the question of why they’re still around. Is it because it is customary to use them or is it because businesses provide them free of cost? Is it because people do not care or is it because people are not aware? These are all questions we seek to answer at HII.

Looking for answers, on Saturday, July 13, HII attended the Grand Street Business Improvement District Weekend Walk to hear what our neighbors had to say about banning plastic bags in New York. It was surprising (in the best of ways) to learn how much our community already knows about the impacts of plastic bags on the environment. From kids to adults, everyone had their own unique understanding and many had their own reasons for wanting to ban them!

Have you thought what is your reason to support banning plastic bags? To learn more visit, and follow the conversations through Twitter with #BagItNYC.

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