Tag Archives: NYC

New York Joins the Ranks of the War on Single-Use Plastics

plastic bag sign

Today marks the day that the New York State ban on plastic bags takes effect (as well as New York City’s $.05 fee for paper bags). I haven’t yet been to any stores to check on compliance. I hope someone who’s more intrepid on a cold Sunday morning than I am is taking up that task. But as of yesterday, shoppers I saw in a supermarket and a drug store were being offered and were taking plastic bags. I guess they were feeling they didn’t need any practice, despite the signs that have been there for the last couple of weeks. And cashiers were still surprised when I refused them.

And there is the predictable backlash. In the New York Post, one shopper was quoted: “Not good for old people, for disabled people. Where do you put your groceries if they’re not in a bag? So it sucks.”

Seniors have been a factor. The city tried to impose a fee on plastic bags in 2017, but it was defeated by the state legislature. When I called my state senator’s office to complain about him voting against the small fee, his office told me that his vote had been based on extensive complaints by seniors that they couldn’t afford the $.05. I’m willing to bet that the plastic bag lobby sent staffers to senior facilities where they could persuade people en masse to call their legislators. (He was voted out of office at the next election. I’d like to think his opposition to the fee was the cause of his defeat, though I’m sure it wasn’t.)

Perhaps it was for the best as the state’s outright ban is better than a fee by the city.

So, New York is now added to my database of plastic bans and fees worldwide. In fact, just two months into 2020, I’ve added several entries. Some are just bans on plastic bags while others are more extensive bans on single-use plastics: China (plastic bags by the end of 2020 and other single-use plastics to follow), Thailand, Jamaica, Belize, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas.

A bill in the US Congress, sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), would address the issue of single-use plastics nationwide. One groundbreaking part of the bill, according to EcoWatch, “requires plastic producers to take responsibility for their waste. The bill would shift the burden of waste collection and management from local governments and taxpayers to the manufacturers of items like packaging, containers, food service products and paper, who would be charged with designing and funding recycling systems.”

That’s a good thing because bans are only as effective as the compliance with them. As long as recycling places the onus on the public, this will be a problem. And it’s not always because of our laziness. It’s often just plain difficult. Even after researching it (and how many people do that?), I’m still uncertain what types of plastic can be recycled here in NYC. (Cardboard milk cartons, according to the posters, get recycled with plastics, not paper. Go figure.) The city says all hard plastics – not the flimsy stuff – can go in the recycling bin. But Beyond Plastics and Greenpeace say that much of that can’t actually be recycled, even if a company’s label sometimes says it can be. The city is just trying to make it simpler for us. Sort of.

That Greenpeace report found that:

  1. Only some PET #1 and HDPE #2 plastic bottles and jugs can be legitimately labeled as recyclable in the U.S. today.
  2. Common plastic pollution items, including single use plastic food service and convenience products, cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S.
  3. Plastics #3-7 have negligible-to-negative value and are effectively a category of products that municipal recycling programs may collect, but do not actually recycle. Plastic #3-7 waste collected in municipal systems across the country is being sent to landfills or incinerated.
  4. Many full body shrink sleeves on PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs make them non-recyclable.

Remedying this would require something called “extended producer responsibility,” the concept that a manufacturer’s responsibility doesn’t end when the product goes out their door. That’s what that US congressional bill would address.

EPR could go beyond simple plastic recycling. Imagine if Dell or Apple had to take their laptops back at the end of their useful lives. Or if Whirlpool had to pick up your dead refrigerator or washing machine. Not only would it simplify recycling, it would also mean companies would want to design their products keeping in mind that they were going to have to deal with them later on. That’d be incentive to incorporate something call “design for disassembly” in order to make recycling easier.

That would be a breakthrough. It would reverse that shift of responsibility. A more direct approach in the meantime is a good old-fashioned lawsuit. Gizmodo’s environmental arm, Earther, reports that the Earth Island Institute is suing “ten companies—including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, and Procter and Gamble—on Wednesday, alleging that the companies pollute waterways, coasts, and oceans with the millions of tons of plastic packaging they produce. A 2018 report found that globally, Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle account for 14 percent of plastic pollution.”

Ideally, we stop the scourge of single-use plastics. But that’s going to take a while and, meanwhile, we already have an unfathomable amount of plastics ending up in landfills or the oceans. While it’s better, I always tell my sustainable design students, to prevent a problem from occurring in the first place rather than have to deal with it afterward, we have to do both in the case of plastics. There are companies like Terracycle and Smile Plastics that are making things from that stream of detritus. An Israeli startup is working on taking all sorts of garbage – plastics, dirty paper and food waste – and making into a kind of plastic pellet that can then be made into other products. It would solve a multitude of problems including diminishing the amount of methane, a greenhouse gas, produced by landfills.

As great as that could be, it still addresses the problem after the fact. Single-use plastics are a perverse use of an otherwise wondrous material. Because plastics last such a long time, let’s use them for products that last a long time. Not flimsy bags and soda bottles and packaging.

The Distillery: September 28, 2017

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


In the aftermath of 9/11, at a gathering I attended here in New York City, a participant said she didn’t want to hear about the opportunities in the face of the disaster, that it was emotionally just wrong and, though she didn’t use those words, “too soon.”

Of course, she was right in that moment. But in the longer run, disasters can indeed represent opportunities, especially in avoiding or mitigating future ones. While it may still be considered too early to look at Harvey, Irma and Maria in this regard (as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in dismissing climate change as a factor, has made a point of saying), Japan’s 2011 earthquake and NYC’s Superstorm Sandy are far enough behind us that we can look more objectively. One of the things we can specifically address is making the electrical grid more resilient.

From Yale Environment 360:
September 12, 2017
Rebuilding from 2011 Earthquake, Japanese Towns Choose to Go Off the Grid

The destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Creative Commons via David Suzuki Foundation

EcoOptimism’s take: In the NYC blackout caused by Superstorm Sandy, virtually everything below 34th Street, including our Lower East Side neighborhood, went dark for days. NYU’s campus at Washington Square Park was the exception. A recently installed co-generation plant kicked in, allowing the campus to separate from the ConEd grid so that power there remained on. NYU opened its doors so that not just students, but also the nearby community could at least charge their cellphones…

From The New York Times:
How N.Y.U. Stayed (Partly) Warm and Lighted
November 12, 2012

Source: http://slideplayer.com/slide/9360514/

EcoOptimism’s take: “Microgrids” are becoming a mainstay of resilience, so that when a disaster occurs or something goes wrong in the power grid, that one event doesn’t take down entire regions. Hoboken, NJ is putting this into application…

From CityLab:
To Stormproof Hoboken, a Microgrid
August 24, 2016

Image source: Huffington Post

EcoOptimism’s take: Microgrids, by definition, are subsets within the national or regional grid. They can be defined by an area as small as a few blocks or larger – perhaps a mid-size city like Hoboken.

And they can serve multiple purposes:

From Columbia University’s University’s Earth Institute:
Microgrids: Taking Steps Toward the 21st Century Smart Grid
April 18, 2017

Source: www.microgridinstitute.org

EcoOptimism’s take: Microgrids also enable locally generated power such as solar or wind to better co-exist with the larger grid. In doing this, they not only enhance resilience, but overcome the dubious objection quoted by some that these renewable energy sources endanger the nation’s aging power grid.

Which brings us full circle to the role of renewable energy in resilience…

From Grist.org:
Hurricanes keep bringing blackouts. Clean energy could keep the lights on.
September 22, 2017

And:
From RMI (Rocky Mountain Institute):
Rebuilding the Caribbean for a Resilient and Renewable Future
September 22, 2017

Image source: RMI.org

EcoOptimism’s take: In the face of disasters, this makes the combination of microgrids and renewable energy one of those win-win-win solutions that EcoOptimism is so fond of.

Will the Solutions Come from Cities?

NYC view

Image: Wikimedia

It wasn’t terribly surprising that the recent UN Climate Summit didn’t yield anything substantive, much less binding. After all, twenty years of world conferences and summits haven’t achieved much. Meanwhile, we’ve been dithering away the time while greenhouse gas levels have been rising, making it harder and harder to avoid horrific impacts.

So where’s the EcoOptimism?

Turns out it’s not with national governments at all, and that’s reason for hope. (Especially given the dysfunctional US federal government, hobbled by a Congress filled with the willfully illiterate.) In its stead, lower level officials, notably mayors, have been leading from the bottom up, changing mundane things like building codes and transportation programs.

Mayors lead cities, and cities are where a majority of us 7 billion humans live. Urban environments, according to Edward Mazria, whose talk I wrote about in the previous post, emit 75% of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. So focusing on cities makes a lot of sense.

The good news is that urban populations in the U.S. tend to be more politically progressive, voting heavily Democratic and not home to many climate change deniers. Thus mayors have political support for positive actions. Plus, as Grist points out, they’re “not beholden to rural, fossil-fuel dependent constituencies.”

The latest evidence for this alternative to pin our hopes on is NYC Mayor De Blasio’s announcement, timed to coincide with the summit, of new goals for energy efficiency of buildings in the city, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels.

GHGs OLTPS

In my previous post, I wrote about the pivotal role architects have in achieving energy efficiency and GHG reductions. That dovetails nicely with this urban direction, especially in cases like NYC where so much of the environmental impact comes from buildings. (Because more people use mass transit and fewer people drive cars, the transportation impact in dense cities tends to be lower.)

These bottom up initiatives have the potential create a trickle up effect to the national level. As cities embark on these programs – and presuming they are successful – they may provide the precedents as well as the political cover for Congress to come around.

So we shouldn’t give up on the Feds. While action from them is extremely unlikely currently, urban programs that are both ecologically and economically successful will disprove the allegations of the climate denier lobby.

Density Part 3: Kenneth Jackson’s “Future” of New York

[This post is part of a continuing series within EcoOptimism analyzing the pros and cons and different types of urban density, beginning with the post Height vs Delight and continuing with Density: It’s Not the Sky that’s the Limit.]

The urban historian Kenneth T. Jackson is a towering figure among New Yorkologists, so it seems appropriate that he’d be a supporter of towers themselves. In an Op-Ed this Sunday in The New York Times, he takes to task the opposition to the proposed upzoning of East Midtown in Manhattan.

Illustration from the Municipal Art Society in its response to the rezoning showing “how the height of the new buildings the City is hoping to see realized around Grand Central Terminal will impact the area.”

Illustration from the Municipal Art Society in its response to the rezoning showing “how the height of the new buildings the City is hoping to see realized around Grand Central Terminal will impact the area.”

Historic preservation, he says, has gone too far. “Its goal seems to be to preserve anything that will maintain the streetscape, whether or not the individual structures have significance….Presumably, its leaders would be happy to stop any change at all between 59th Street and 125th Street.”

New and taller construction is necessary, in his vision of NYC’s future, in order to maintain the city’s pre-eminence. Buried in this belief are two huge and, I believe, mistaken assumptions. The first is the basic premise that NYC must be pre-eminent.  While it sounds irreverent and disloyal to say otherwise, the fact is that NYC is but one of many major 21st century urban centers. We are no longer in a world dominated by New York, London and Paris, and haven’t been for a while. (Though midtown Manhattan is still the largest central business district in the world, at least according to Wikipedia.) True, NYC is still seen as the financial capital of the world, but in many ways this is vestigial in a digital and globalized scenario and, furthermore, it’s highly questionable whether it’s in the city’s best interests to remain focused and therefore dependent on a single “industry.” Many have argued for the economic diversification of the city, with an eye to the income and job generators of the future: creating more baskets for the eggs, etc. Potential growth sectors that have been discussed, in addition to silicon alley, include sustainable design and related industries, distributed manufacturing (MakerBot originated in Brooklyn), biotech, urban agriculture and, of course, the arts.

The second assumption Jackson makes is that the solution to securing the city’s future is in the clouds. Unfortunately, he doesn’t mean the digital cloud, in which information is dispersed, but the physical clouds encountered at skyscraper heights, in which people are concentrated. Jackson laments “Of the 100 tallest buildings in the world now under construction, only three are in New York and only one is in East Midtown.”

But why are height and the city’s ranking in numbers of tallest buildings the determinant of growth and importance? The essential defining property of a city is density: a concentration of people that enables commerce, community and exchanges of ideas.  But like most things, there is a point at which density (of people, buildings and traffic, not to mention bank branches, Duane Reades and Starbucks) reaches diminishing returns and begins to undermine the attributes that constitute the vitality of a city.

Jackson claims that density in Manhattan has decreased from a population of 2.3 million in 1910 to 1.6 million today. But that’s a very misleading way to define density. It excludes the additional 1.6 million people who commute to work in the city every day, as well as the number of tourists. And the East Midtown upzoning plan is not designed to increase residential space; it’s for commercial towers. This will effectively worsen a basic problem of Manhattan and many cities in general: the separation of working and living areas. This results in what are perhaps the two greatest problems of modern cities:  expense of living and transportation congestion. According to an NYU Wagner Rudin Center report, “Manhattan is the top work destination in the country for ‘extreme commuting,’ work trips that are more than 90 minutes long each way.” And as many of us are all too aware, NYC is the most expensive place to live in the US, all of which would lead to the conclusion that the city needs more living space, not office towers.

Regarding transportation, Jackson blithely puts aside another extreme: the crowding on the existing east side transportation infrastructure, claiming the MTA “could handle more, not fewer, riders” based on the statistic that ridership has fallen since 1947. Try telling that to any rush hour rider. In a breath, he ignores the fact that there were two more train lines on the east side then (before the Second and Third Avenue Els were demolished) and merely says that the long-awaited and far from finished Second Avenue subway will relieve some of the congestion on the crammed Lexington line.

There’s a more convincing argument for upgrading midtown’s office spaces. A study by the eco-consulting group Terrapin Bright Green concluded that the bulk of the mid-century office buildings in midtown are outmoded in terms of both space and energy efficiency and, more significantly, cannot be viably upgraded. The singularly most devastating finding, from the point of view of either environmentalists or historic preservationists, is that these buildings would need new skins – the old curtain walls are energy sieves – but the structures of the buildings cannot support the weight of better insulated facades. That’s in addition to the fact that their low ceilings with many interior columns are not “Class A” spaces, the most desired type. (At least, that is, for conventional financial institutions with trading floors and old-school work cubicles. The newer growth sectors have more varied needs.)

The city’s thinking is that replacing these buildings is not economically viable for developers given the existing zoning limitations. Given the coziness between developers and the Bloomberg administration, one has to take with this a grain of salt.

Like the city (and most economists and politicians), Jackson seems to wholeheartedly swallow the “growth is good” Kool-Aid. We have to be very careful how we define growth. Growth is not the same as betterment, and the opposite of growth is not stagnancy. Jackson writes:

Is New York still the wonder city, the place that celebrates the future, the city that once defined modernism? Or should it follow the paths of Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah in emphasizing its human scale, its gracious streets and its fine, historic houses?

The answer for a metropolis competing on a global scale must be no, because a vital city is a growing city, and a growing city is a changing city.

Leaving aside the question of what’s wrong with the human scale and gracious streets (btw, I’d substitute “livable” for “gracious”) of Boston or Philadelphia – or, for that matter, Paris — Jackson has reduced this critical issue to a false dilemma. The choice is not solely between economic vitality and quaint neighborhoods. Nor is it between unbridled development and historic preservation. For cities to succeed economically, environmentally and socially, we have to look at a wider, more holistic picture than simply the one that gives us the tallest buildings and the most claims to the “greatest city.” We have to include affordability, reducing inequity, increasing livability and, yes, a sense of history. These are not the constraints Jackson seems to regard them as. They are the sources of our future “growth” and our flourishing as individuals, as communities and as a world.