In a memorable scene in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22, one character tries to get another character to eat a cotton ball dipped in chocolate. The capitalist Milo Minderbinder is bemoaning his rotten fate at having purchased too much Egyptian cotton. The specter of financial ruin looms if he can’t figure out a way to unload the excess. His solution, though indigestible, is delicious.
Now consider the humble plastic bag. Polyethelene, of which plastic bags are made, is a kind of petrochemical byproduct of natural gas operations. Like benzene.
In every 42-gallon barrel of crude oil, more than seven gallons of petrochemical byproduct will be left over after gasoline, diesel, heating oil and rocket fuel are extracted. An oft-repeated motto among butchers of pigs has it that they will sell everything but the squeal. The aftermarket for oil extraction is similarly stated.
Crayons, beardwax and condoms are all constituted of petrochemicals. Glycerin, a type of sweet-tasting carbohydrate which often stands in for food flavoring. Condensed milk. Breakfast cereals. Puddings and pasta. Everything but the squeal. Delicious.
Plastic, which is as indigestible as cotton, and plastic bags are the most notorious byproducts. According to the EPA, 35.7 million tons of plastic was generated across the country in the year 2018, the equivalent to the weight of 98 Empire State buildings.
The World Petroleum Company, Petroleum Service Company, CPV Manufacturing and other petroleum-minded companies which depend upon the sale of plastics for bottom line clutter the Internet with benign did-you-know articles.
“Did you know that the word ‘petroleum’ comes from the Latin ‘oleum’ which means oil, and the Greek ‘petra’ which means rock? It can be translated as rock oil, and it’s one of the most popular commodities in the world.”
Which is correct. As a testament to its popularity, there’s a plastic island twice the size of Texas floating somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
In the year 2019, plastic bags were so popular that according to the DEC over 23 billion plastic bags were used across New York State. In fact, plastic bags got too popular. New York decided to ban a particularly pernicious variety of plastic bags known as single-use. Ubiquitous and convenient and then instantly disposable, all bags under ten mils thick were banned in the state on March 1, 2020.
Baked into the language of the ban from the get-go, however, plastic bags would still be allowed if “a reasonable or practical alternative” for carrying items could not be found.
‘Reasonable’ is a squishy word, hard to define legally. The word ‘practical’ also depends upon the exercise of common sense, which conjures up dramatically different mental pictures to different people, especially where a financial bottom line is concerned.
Here in Kingston, unified by their quiet defiance, three out of the four gas stations on Broadway, Sunoco, Valero and Mobil, still provide plastic carry out bags to their customers. The fourth gas station, Speedway, offers its customers only brown paper bags.
Actual statewide exceptions apply to take-out food from restaurants. Again the intersection of petroleum and food.
Everyone knows plastic bags choke children and seagulls. And though they don’t biodegrade very quickly — taking around 20 years in a landfill — they do break apart into smaller and smaller microplastics that turn up in fish bellies and in our bloodstreams. We’re eating and drinking plastic. We’re wearing it in our nylons. It’s in our umbrellas.
This June, agriculture chairs assemblymember Donna Lupardo and state senator Michelle Hinchey got legislation passed promoting a nascent hemp industry in New York State whose products could feasibly leave crude-oil extractors holding some of their petrochemical gallons. The measure still requires the governor’s signature.
The bill specifically identifies the market for sustainable, biodegradable, non-petroleum-based packaging and sees New York-produced industrial hemp as the primary ingredient in these products. The seeds can be crushed to make flour and then eaten. Even dipped in chocolate.
The plant itself may be about as delicious as polyethelene, but it biodegrades in just a matter of months.