On Plastic Bag Bans, From an Environmental Perspective

A couple years ago, a ban on single-use plastic bags came into effect in my home state of New York to much fanfare. Now that this ban has been theoretically[1] in effect in my home state for a couple of years now, and now that several other states and municipalities have enacted similar bans over the past several years,[2] I think it is time to honestly evaluate plastic bag bans from an environmental perspective.

I should start by saying that single-use plastics are not what I, or anyone else who cares about the environment, should advocate for. Environmental advocates point out that single-use plastic bags are bad for the environment in a multitude of ways, ranging from impacts on the climate to harming our wildlife.[3] A status quo of single-use, non-recyclable plastic bags (or single-use bags of any kind, for that matter) is simply not sustainable for ourselves, our fellow animals, or our planet in the long-term.

However, when one looks at the environmental impacts of reusable bags, the reality is more complicated than one may realize. Columbia University’s Climate School noted that bags designed to last longer “are made of heavier materials, so they use more resources in production and therefore have greater environmental impacts.”[4] Therefore, bags designed to be reusable need to be reused many times over in order to have a climate footprint equivalent to our traditional single-use plastic bag brethren—50 to 150 times for a cotton bag, 10-20 times for a durable polypropylene (PP) bag, and 5-10 times for a somewhat less durable but still reusable polyethylene (PE) bag.[5]

But, there is a catch—as the United Nations Environment Programme noted, in order to have cotton bags, PP bags, and PE bags with an equivalent environmental footprint to single-use plastic bags, people need to keep on reusing the bags, and the bags themselves need to be durable. Unfortunately, a problem that my family, as well as people around me, have run into is that some bags are not very durable and have a tendency to fall apart before using the bag the number of times we need to in order to make them even environmentally equivalent to single-use plastic bags. I know some people who have used certain reusable plastic bags at least once a week (if not more than that) for years now, in which case the bags they’ve used have ended up being better for the environment than single-use plastic bags. However, I also know some people who’ve seen reusable bags fall apart after being used only on a few occasions.

While I would still not advocate for single-use plastic bags, unfortunately the reality of reusable bags is that it is questionable whether they are better for the environment than the single-use ones. Before drawing conclusions about the overall environmental footprint of various reusable bags in relation to single-use ones, I would personally first like to see how long the average cotton bag, PP bag, and PE bag lasts. If they don’t last the requisite number of times to have an environmental footprint equivalent to single-use plastic bags, then perhaps our traditional plastic bags that we get (or used to get) at grocery stores, as bad as they are, may yet be better for the environment than the reusable bags we’ve resorted to in some municipalities and states.

I will leave my readers with one last thought, a thought that might actually be the inspiration of a future blog post: just because something is reusable doesn’t automatically mean that the thing is good for the environment.


[1] I say “theoretically” because enforcement on the ban has been shaky at best. Here’s a news story about these issues with enforcement: https://www.thecity.nyc/environment/2021/7/26/22595273/nyc-plastic-bag-ban-violators-getting-away-with-breaking-law

[2] The National Conference of State Legislatures notes the states and notable municipalities with various plastic bag bans and fees: https://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/plastic-bag-legislation.aspx

[3] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/single-use-plastics-101

[4] https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/04/30/plastic-paper-cotton-bags/

[5] https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/31932/SUPB.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Hurricane Ida Deaths in New York City: A Microcosm of Who Climate Change Affects the Most

Flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on the Major Deegan Expressway in New York City (The Bronx, to be exact)

A few weeks ago, the remnants of Hurricane Ida ravaged New York City with historic flooding. As I’ve told my friends about Ida, 2-4 inches of snow an hour paralyzes New York City, let alone 2-4 inches of rain an hour, which was what we received. The result was numerous deaths in New York City—deaths in communities that represent a microcosm of who climate change affects the most.

While it is impossible to chalk up the impacts of any one storm entirely to climate change, there is no doubt that warmer air and water temperatures create a recipe ideal for bigger and stronger storms what we got with Ida.[1] And Ida was a storm stronger (in terms of rainfall) than what one is typically expected to get with the sort of climate that exists in New York City.

Due to Ida’s floods, there were numerous deaths. Not only that, but most of the people who died from Hurricane Ida in my hometown of New York City died in illegal basement apartments.[2] It may be easy to wag one’s finger at the existence of basement apartments or those who live in them because they are illegal, but the unfortunate reality is that these basement apartments exist because many people in a city as expensive as New York cannot afford to live anywhere else.[3] In other words, most of the people who died from Ida were likely too much in poverty to afford living anywhere else.

And the fact that this storm, which was likely made stronger by climate change, killed so many who were so poor they could only afford an illegal basement apartment, should serve as a cautionary example of who climate change affects the most.

The situations with people in basement apartments during Ida is one example of this. But there are so many other examples of the poor being particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events fueled by climate change. There was Hurricane Katrina, where those who were in the lowest-lying areas most prone to flooding from the storm were predominantly poor (and Black).[4] It wasn’t just Katrina, though—with storms in general, those in lower-income neighborhoods are most likely to be the most severely affected by these storms,[5] even though they are the least able to handle such storms.[6] With wildfires, as well, the poor are often the most vulnerable—the University of California at Irvine found in a study earlier this year that those impacted the most by wildfires in that state (which have become more frequent as a result of climate change) have disproportionately been poor.[7]

This is not to say that those who are wealthier cannot be impacted by these storms. After all, the Hamptons in New York suffered severe damage from Hurricane Sandy, while wildfires threatened Hollywood a couple of years ago. However, those who are wealthier have more financial resources than those who are poorer to recover from the extreme weather events made worse by climate change, if those who are wealthier even live in areas vulnerable to extreme weather to begin with (and in many cases, it’s the poor who live in the areas most vulnerable to extreme weather).[8] Furthermore, those who are wealthier are more likely to have a place to go in the event of a disaster threatening their residences. For those who think or hope that weather disasters made worse by climate change can be equalizers between the wealthy and everyone else, think again.

What this all means is that reducing poverty is more than an economic justice issue. It is a climate justice issue, too. And failing to address poverty and all its adjacent issues, such as housing affordability, other cost-of-living expenses, and job wages, contributes to more people being more vulnerable to extreme weather events made worse by climate change. As long as we fail to address this, I fear that we should prepare ourselves for higher death tolls caused by a combination of more extreme weather and a high number of people in poverty. That being said, this is a case where I hope I am wrong, and I would be extremely glad if I found that I were wrong.


[1] https://today.tamu.edu/2021/09/02/climate-change-helped-intensify-hurricane-ida-a-potential-preview-of-whats-to-come/

[2] https://abcnews.go.com/US/calls-change-11-people-nyc-basement-apartments-died/story?id=79818549

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4829446

[5] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2017/09/18/hurricanes-hit-the-poor-the-hardest/

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://news.uci.edu/2021/05/30/california-wildfires-disproportionately-affect-elderly-and-poor-residents-uci-study-finds/

[8] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/social-mobility-memos/2017/09/18/hurricanes-hit-the-poor-the-hardest/

Access to Clean, Safe Drinking Water: A Racial Justice Issue

An image of water. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When some of us (particularly those of us of means) in the United States think of places that lack access to clean drinking water, we think of certain countries on the African continent. And, it is true that parts of Africa struggle to access even the most basic of water services—nine of the ten worst countries in the world in terms of access to clean water are located on that continent.[1]

However, I am concerned that many of us may be blind to issues of water access at home, in the United States of America. Furthermore, I am concerned that many of us may be blind about how this access to water is a racial justice issue.

Sure, a major report on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a few years ago cited systemic racism as being at the core of the problems with the crisis (Flint is a majority-Black city),[2] but the situation in Flint is only a microcosm of widespread problems when it comes to water issues and racial justice. Consider these facts:

  • 2 million Americans lack access to running water and basic indoor plumbing as of November 2019. Native Americans are 19 times more likely than their white counterparts to be without indoor plumbing, while African American and Latinx people have no indoor plumbing at almost twice the rate of white people.[3]
  • Tap water that violates legal water safety standards in the United States is 40% more likely to serve people of color.[4]
  • Rising water bills, which in turn makes it difficult for households to afford their own water, has disproportionately affected Black communities.[5]

Without meaning to belittle the importance of making sure that people in different countries all around the world have access to clean and safe drinking water, maybe we should also look at the issues with water access and safety in our own backyard, too. And we should look at these issues through a racial justice lens because it is clear that there is a connection between race and water access/safety. To that end, water access is not just a human rights issue (because every human on this planet should have the right to clean, safe, affordable drinking water), but also a racial justice issue.

While water may not get the sort of attention issues-wise that certain other elements of racial justice advocacy may be getting right now, it is no less important. After all, if we are given water that leaves us unwell in some way, then we end up unable to advocate for the other racial justice issues at hand. As such, water access and cleanliness, while not getting the attention it often deserves, should get attention in the push for racial justice, and particularly racial justice for Black and Indigenous communities.


[1] https://www.worldvision.org/clean-water-news-stories/10-worst-countries-access-clean-water

[2] https://apnews.com/article/us-news-race-and-ethnicity-mi-state-wire-flint-michigan-df42de2ec4424193866467a2981ccb51

[3] https://www.marketwatch.com/story/2-million-americans-dont-have-access-to-running-water-and-basic-plumbing-2019-11-20

[4] https://www.forbes.com/sites/daphneewingchow/2021/02/28/a-recent-survey-casts-new-light-on-americas-racial-and-water-divide/?sh=16840f221a6e

[5] https://www.naacpldf.org/wp-content/uploads/Water_Report_FULL_5_31_19_FINAL_OPT.pdf

Work From Home and the Environment

I should start by making this much clear: we are not in a post-COVID world. Far from it. For all of the talk of reopening things right now, COVID is still very much a factor. We are losing hundreds of Americans per day.

However, at some point we are going to be looking at the other side of this virus, and at that point, we are going to need to think about what different workplaces look like after the virus. Granted, many workplaces are already thinking about this.

Some workplaces cannot function virtually and therefore may end up looking the same as they were before the virus. There are many professions, such as many service industries, manufacturing, construction, and much more, that must be done on site and cannot be done virtually. There are other workplaces that have tried to function virtually, but with significant problems since the pandemic began—teaching comes to mind as one such profession.

However, some workplaces have discovered that they can function virtually quite well, and in some cases as well as they did before the virus. In such cases, it would be best from an environmental standpoint if work from home became a long-term condition.

In many countries, including the United States, transport is the number one cause of greenhouse gas emissions.[1] Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of said transport comes from the car,[2] which is the vehicle of choice for many to head to work. What this means is that if fewer people needed to go to a workplace, fewer people would need to drive. And if fewer people need to drive, there’s less pollution coming into the air, contributing to the problems of dirty air and global warming.

Basically, work from home is environmentally friendly.

Now, the question of whether continuing to work from home after COVID (in industries that have been able to work from home during COVID) is going to be, in many cases, an office-by-office decision, depending on how well different offices felt they were able to function during the pandemic. Some offices may decide that they didn’t function well when they worked virtually, and therefore will head back to their offices after COVID. Other offices may feel on the fence about this question. Other offices yet may feel that they have functioned quite well from home during the pandemic and will be more than happy to work from home after the pandemic. Other offices yet may feel that they have functioned relatively well during the pandemic but would find it useful to have a combination of a combination of in-person work and working at home. However, especially for offices that are on the fence—particularly offices that are in areas where the only way to get to the location (or by far the easiest/most convenient way to get to the office) is by car, perhaps environmental considerations could also play into the thought process in such a decision.

For as much as some of us may like to think of key decisions on the environment as some far-away thing for people in some distant land to deal with, the reality is that all of us as individuals, as well as our bosses as individuals, have a role to play in taking care of the environment. And, perhaps in cases where offices functioned well while working virtually during the pandemic, the decision to continue working from home after the pandemic can be more than an office functionality decision, but an environmental one, too.


[1] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions

[2] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200317-climate-change-cut-carbon-emissions-from-your-commute

Transit and the Environment

An Amtrak train

A couple years ago, I traveled to see one of my best friends get married. That was a special day for me, seeing one of my best friends marry the love of his life.

The day before and the day after the wedding, the train ride I took was very pretty. However, I experienced and learned more about how second-rate of a train “system” Amtrak, the intercity/interstate passenger rail system we have in the United States, really is.

My experience was interesting, to say the least. I was obsessed about making my train in good time because this was the only train going between New York City and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (my destination). My Pittsburgh-bound train was delayed, by as much as forty minutes at one point, because we were stuck behind two freight trains—something that wouldn’t happen if Amtrak owned its own tracks and therefore had control over which trains travelled through and when. The café car on the way back to New York had food about twice as expensive as fast food at a highway exit (and less edible than McDonald’s).

Then, there was what I learned before, during, and after my train ride. Before the train ride, I already knew that some major cities in the United States, such as Las Vegas, Nevada and Nashville, Tennessee, do not have any train service. During my visit, I learned that Pittsburgh, a city of about 300,000 people, had only three train departures a day at the time: one that left for Chicago at 11:59 PM, one that left for Washington, D.C. at 5:20 AM, and one that left for New York at 7:30 AM (the train I took back to New York).  And since my train ride, I’ve learned that it’s actually quite common for trains to be delayed because Amtrak does not own many of the tracks it provides service on, therefore creating a situation where they are often stuck behind freight trains and delayed by many minutes.

It’s as if Americans are being actively discouraged to take commuter rail. And that is horrendous for the environment.

The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States is transit.[1] These greenhouse gases, which trap heat and help make the planet warmer, make our air toxic and contribute to global warming.[2] Considering the fact that transit is the number one cause of these emissions, it is appalling that transit’s role in damaging the environment, as well as the role it needs to play in helping the environment, seems to get discussed relatively little.

But how should discussions on transportation and the environment start? I have a few ideas:

  1. It must be recognized that transportation is a major reason why our air is dirty and the environment is not in the shape that it should be. As I said before, transit is the biggest emitter in greenhouse gases, and until we recognize that, transit won’t be a factor that is considered seriously when reviewing environmental policies.
  2. If the United States is serious about cutting transit emissions, the country must prioritize mass transit over cars and airplanes. Study after study shows that buses and trains are way better for the environment than cars and airplanes. Yes, ultimately there need to be disincentives for driving and flying within the lower 48 states,[3] but if you’re in Las Vegas and have zero Amtrak service, then your only options for intercity travel are either a car or an airplane. There need to be greater disincentives for driving within cities, but if public transportation does not take you to where you want to go, then you have to drive.
  3. Municipalities should make their areas easier to walk or ride a bike. The city kid in me always used to give a bemused chuckle when I heard people talk about needing to drive everywhere, even if it’s three minutes away, because they couldn’t walk anywhere. That needs to change. By making spaces easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate, we can cut down on the countless three-minute drives to schools, grocery stores, doctors, etc., that wouldn’t be necessary with good pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.
  4. We need cars and planes to burn less in the way of greenhouse gases. While cars and planes are so damaging to the environment, some people will still need to use cars and/or planes to function personally and/or professionally. Policy looking to reduce greenhouse gases coming from transit should look to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that come from a car or a plane.[4]

After reading all of this, readers can see why I’m so mad about the state of Amtrak and public transportation in the United States in general. Sound environmental policy would work on building Amtrak into a world-class system, work on building other public transport infrastructure, and improve infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. Sadly, the United States currently does the opposite—it makes environmentally friendly modes of transport as slow, unreliable, expensive, miserable, and in the case of walking and riding a bicycle, as unsafe as possible. Hopefully, with Earth Day having recently happened, and with a concrete proposal on the table to invest in public transit at the national level,[5] we can push our politicians to advocate for more extensive mass transit in the United States, and push ourselves away from cars and airplanes whenever it is possible to do so.  


[1] https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions#targetText=The%20largest%20source%20of%20greenhouse,Greenhouse%20Gas%20Emissions%20and%20Sinks.

[2] Yes, I believe in global warming/climate change.

[3] While climate activist Greta Thunberg recently traveled between Europe and the U.S. by a zero-emissions yacht, those travels took a week (I think) and many of us do not have a week to spend in the ocean because of family and/or job commitments. Therefore, airplane still seems to be the most convenient mode of cross-ocean travel, as environmentally unfriendly as that is.

[4] Note that this does not necessarily mean going over to electric cars. Electric cars have their own set of environmental risks, including from the cars’ batteries—something this article talks about: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/10/17/fact-check-electric-cars-emit-less-better-environment/3671468001/

[5] President Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for spending $80 billion to improve passenger rail service: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-biden-infrastructure-mass-transit/analysis-biden-infrastructure-plan-bets-big-on-u-s-return-to-mass-transit-after-covid-19-idUSKBN2BN3O2. I am not enough “in the weeds” of transit policy to know whether this will be enough money to make Amtrak a respectable national rail system, but considering that the amount of fiscal support Biden wants to dedicate to passenger rail dwarves the approximately $2 billion a year Amtrak currently receives in government support (https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/09/amtrak-passenger-railroad-needs-up-to-4point9-billion-in-government-funding-ceo-says.html), it’s a proposal worth discussing.