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‘People Will Wonder Why We Didn’t Do This Sooner’: New York Becomes Second State to Ban Plastic Bags

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‘People Will Wonder Why We Didn’t Do This Sooner’: New York Becomes Second State to Ban Plastic Bags
A man holds a plastic shopping bag in New York's Central Park. Kena Betancur / VIEWpress / Corbis via Getty Images

New York State lawmakers agreed to a ban on single-use plastic bags Sunday, making the Empire State the second in the nation to do so.

The decision was part of a $175.5 billion budget agreement that included other progressive measures including the elimination of cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent crimes, three-hours-off on election day for voting and the nation's first-ever congestion pricing program in the busiest part of Manhattan. The budget was expected to be passed in a series of bills during a session Sunday that could carry into Monday, the Associated Press reported.

"I am proud to announce that together, we got it done," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said of the budget, according to the Associated Press.


The plastic bag ban will go into effect March 1, 2020. Counties and cities will have the option to charge customers five cents for paper bags. Two cents would then go to a fund to help low-income customers buy reusable bags and three cents would go to the state's Environmental Protection Fund.

In passing the ban, New York follows California, which was the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags in 2016. In Hawaii, they are also effectively banned since every county in the state prohibits them.

"I think we'll look back in a few years and people will wonder why we didn't do this sooner," Democratic Nassau County State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who sponsored the bill and chairs the environmental conservation committee, told The New York Times.

The ban comes after several failed attempts to manage plastic bags in New York. In 2017, Cuomo signed a bill that blocked a New York City plan to charge five cents for plastic bags. Last year, a similar, state-wide ban was blocked by Republicans in the state Senate. But Democrats picked up eight Senate seats during the 2018 midterm elections, gaining a majority and making the ban possible.

"I'm looking forward to it. I've been waiting for it for a long time. I'm tired of having to recycle them," Midtown resident Louise Sharakan told CBS2 of the upcoming ban.

However, not all New Yorkers are pleased, as this interview shows:

"I hate it. I use them all the time, believe it or not, in my apartment. I don't have a space for garbage. I hang them by the door and I use them for garbage," said Midtown resident Glen Wiehl.

"So what are you going to do?" CBS2's Marcia Kramer asked.

"I'm stocking up now," he said.

The most controversial part of the ban has proved to be the optional paper bag fee. Some environmentalists think it should not be optional, since it could result in shoppers simply using paper bags instead of purchasing reusable bags.

"New York had a chance to show real leadership and came up short," Environmental Advocates of New York Executive Director Peter Iwanowicz told The New York Times.

Business groups, who were critical of the ban in general, thought some of the fee should have been directed back to the stores to help with implementation costs.

"The failure to give even a portion of the 5-cent fee back to the stores, makes this an untenable mandate for many of our members who operate within finite profit margins," Food Industry Alliance of New York State President Mike Durant told The New York Times. "We are disappointed that the Legislature did not consider this alternative and failed to hear the concerns of the business community."

The ban includes exceptions for takeout, dry cleaning, bulk and deli items, newspapers and bags like garbage bags bought in bulk.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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