Loading

Not in the Market for Plastic

One student's passionate pitch for the Central New York Regional Market to eliminate the use of plastic take out bags, along with the rest of New York.

A woman's overwhelming armful of bags.

If you haven’t been to a farmers market, consider this your official push to go.

Of course, it depends on which market you attend, but they can be an oasis of fresh produce, great conversation, and unique gifts. Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of farmers markets in contemporary U.S. is the emphasis on slow, local consumption of products. Many vendors pride themselves on their organic produce, and their sustainable agriculture. 

The Central New York Regional Market is no exception.

Located in Syracuse, N.Y., and created in 1938, it is one of the oldest and biggest markets in the Central New York area, as well as in the city itself. Drawing up to 400 vendors in the summer months, it's a maze of vegetables, culture, and an overwhelming amount of choices.

What stands out about this market, at least to a casual observer, is the abundance of diversity that is represented both in its customers and vendors.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of the 150,000 residents that occupy Syracuse, approximately 30% of the population is African American, and around 40% of that population is living in poverty. An additional 12% of the general population of the city are foreign-born immigrants. And of the entire population of the city, generally up to 30% of its residents live below the poverty line.

It’s important to acknowledge the significance that this market might play in the lives in these individuals, because of its unique location.

Plastic bags are used in some fashion by almost every vendor and customer at the market.

The diversity of this market likely has to do with its location. The market is a mere parking lot away from the William F. Walsh Regional Transportation Center, which has access to Amtrak trains, Centro Syracuse buses, Greyhound buses, and more. It is this ease of transportation that provides access to the market for people from all over the city and across Central New York.

Seen on the left, the Transportation Center is just a parking-lot-walk away.

As a participant in the market, and an observer, it’s hard not to notice the abundance of plastic that is used by the vendors and customers. Currently, vendors are free to distribute whatever type of plastic they feel necessary to their business, and the responsibility is left solely on the shoulders of the buyer to decide whether to bring a reusable bag, or accept the plastic alternative. As a student at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, it’s hard for me to see this much plastic being distributed, because of the impact it will have on the environment, and human health. To me, it seems there should be a connection between sustainable agriculture, and sustainable practices.

And so therefore, I’d like to propose that this market go plastic free. And I think a good place to start would be with the elimination of plastic grocery bags, and there might be a couple of different ways to do this.

Many people at the market opt for the use of plastic bags for their produce.

It turns out I’m not the only one pushing for this change. Starting in March of 2020, New York State will be banning the use of plastic carry-out bags.

According to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s website, “Plastic bag usage affects both our communities and environment. Plastic bags can be seen stuck in trees, as litter in our neighborhoods, and floating in our waterways. From the significant recycling and disposal issues they pose to the harm they can do to wildlife, the negative impacts of plastic bags are easily seen.”

It's currently unclear if this first roll out of bag bans will affect farmers markets, as the business has to collect sales tax for this ban to apply. Regardless, taking the step to eliminate the use of plastic bags at this particular market will have such a positive effect on the environment, that the market should consider the step regardless.

Some may have concerns about how substantial this change will be, though, when it comes to the specific customer base that the CNY Regional Market has. Adapting to the change may become a challenge for many due to the poverty levels in the city.

According to the DEC’s website, “Cities and counties are authorized to adopt a five-cent carry-out bag reduction fee. This means that in these areas, a consumer will be charged 5 cents for each paper carryout bag needed at checkout.”

Considering the CNY Regional Market’s customers, I did the math to see how much this charge would add up to over the period of a year, assuming there will be a 5-cent fee for each paper bag used:

If one family buys from 10 different vendors per trip, and at each vendor they need a new bag, that would add up to 50 cents per trip. Multiply that by 52 weeks in a year, and for a family that could cost around $26 per year. For those below, or even at the poverty line, an additional $26 a week, or 50 cents a week, could be unaffordable. This could potentially alienate some families from the market, and therefore from easy access to fresh produce.

Keeping the racial, economic, and community aspects in mind, it’s hard to expect that the market will go plastic-free overnight. Instead, I’d like to propose a couple options of initial steps, both at the market’s administrative level, and on an individual level. I’ve drawn these ideas through research, communications with environmental justice professionals, and my own knowledge as an observer and participant in the community.

1.

One option for the market administration would be to allow vendors to provide a discount for customers who bring reusables. Therefore incentivising the step away from plastic bags, while not alienating those who might not be able to afford a tax.

2.

Another option would be for the market to provide reusable bags in a couple different ways. If the bag has the CNY Regional Market logo front and center, there is the prospect of advertising. They also could raise awareness and attendance at the market by providing a complimentary bag for first-time customers.

3.

On an individual level, you can encourage people to stop using plastic take-out bags. Many people feel that the issue is reconciled when they use a bag again as a trash bin bag, but in reality it takes five to 10 times of reusing a bag to negate its environmental impacts, according to a 2018 Danish study.

4.

In order to educate people on this fact, we need to make a conscious effort to change our daily habits. The next time you head out the door, instead of just grabbing your phone, wallet, and your keys, grab a reusable bag on your way out the door, too. Encourage your friends and family, and the idea will spread.

Phone, wallet, keys, bag.

So, if you’re in Syracuse, please join me in promoting this idea, as I’m sure if we all work together, we can push for a step in the right direction.

If you’re somewhere else and please consider that you could push for the same change in your own community. Just remember to keep in mind the racial, economic, and specific community values of your space.

Devon Camillieri

References:

  • https://www2.mst.dk/Udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf
  • https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/02/the-politics-of-quitting-plastic-is-it-only-a-lifestyle-option-for-the-lucky-few
  • https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/syracusecitynewyork
  • https://www.cnyregionalmarket.com
  • https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/realestate/the-cities-hit-hardest-by-extreme-poverty/ar-BBWg7PK
  • https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/50034.html
  • http://www.centro.org/service_schedules/william-f-walsh-regional-transportation-center
  • Personal communication: Lemir Teron