My Old Nemesis: Plastic Bags

On Earth Day, 2019, when New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed a bill banning single-use plastic bags, he said, “You see plastic bags hanging in trees, blowing down the streets, in landfills, and in our waterways, and there is no doubt they are doing tremendous damage.” It is true that nowadays people do see plastic bags in trees. But they didn’t used to—not because the bags weren’t there but because the people didn’t see them. I believe I am the first person who actually saw bags in trees—that is, noticed them in any official way. Once I started noticing the bags, I couldn’t stop, and I soon passed the affliction on to my friends Bill McClelland and Tim McClelland. Noticing bags in trees changed our lives.

“In dreams begin responsibilities,” the poet Delmore Schwartz wrote. The same can be said of seeing, provided that the seeing is combined with noticing. Once we’d seen and noticed the bags, the responsibility part kicked in. We (mostly Tim, who’s a jeweller, and a genius of design) came up with a device we called a bag snagger. It’s a kind of grappler that has tines extending from a central rod which ends in a sharpened hook, like a pruning hook. There are no moving parts. You attach the bag snagger to the end of a long fibreglass pole like the ones window washers use, you lift the pole into the tree so the snagger is touching the bag, you rotate the pole so the tines engage the bag and wrap it around the snagger, and then you pull down and cut the bag free with the pruning hook. Tim made test versions of the snagger, and they worked well. In the nineties and the early two-thousands, we went throughout the city removing bags from trees, and eventually received a U.S. patent for our invention. Expanding our range, we took bags and other debris out of trees not only in New York but in seven or eight other states, in four time zones. We founded a company to manufacture the snagger, and sold a few, though never enough to make money. NPR did a story on us. I appeared in a movie, Jim Jarmusch’s “Blue in the Face,” talking about bags in trees and our snagger. The Times ran a short item about our invention. I wrote a lot of magazine articles about us and trees and bags.

Recently, the amount of bag-snagging we do has dwindled to almost none. Lifting thirty-odd feet of fibreglass up into a tree and wrangling out a bag from uncoöperative branches is work. We were in our forties when we started; Bill and I are almost seventy now, and Tim is pushing sixty-four. We dissolved the company, Bag Snaggers, Inc., a few years ago. Stopping the bags at the source, by legislative action, is obviously the sane solution to the problem. I’m surprised it never occurred to us, but I guess we were thinking artistically—removing the eye-blight, creating a beautiful (by comparison) tree—rather than civically. The bill that the governor signed last year went into effect this month. It says that stores can’t give out film-plastic bags of a thickness of a thousandth of an inch or less, a definition that covers a lot of bags. The worst is the white, almost-see-through “deli bag,” which has a well-known tendency to blow all over and minutely entangle itself in branches and flutter by its handles. These are the orneriest bags, and, with the new law, there should be fewer of them. (The law also allows an option for jurisdictions to place a five-cent fee on paper bags to discourage people from simply switching to paper.)

There are exceptions. Other kinds of bags are still permitted. The in-store clear-plastic bags that you put produce in are still O.K., as are food-delivery bags from restaurants and takeout places, and the filmy plastic bags that dry-cleaning comes in. When we were snagging, we encountered a sizable number of all these kinds. And, of course, the law says nothing about the mylar balloons, plastic tarps, drop cloths, etc., that fall outside the plastic-bag phylum entirely. Even with the new law there will still be plenty of airborne debris.

Right now, in late winter, when strong winds blow through branches with no leaves on them, is the prime season for bags in trees. I don’t want to tell you how many bags in trees are out there in the city as I write—an infinite number. I haven’t stopped seeing them, but I feel less responsibility. I mean, hey, we tried. Bill, who was the company’s C.E.O., still gets calls from landfill managers and others who want to buy a bag snagger, and he has to disappoint them. The snagger costs too much to manufacture for it to be practical, unless some rich person wants to come along and subsidize it for the common good, and to defy the bags. Failing that, the bags will continue to flap in the trees, flag-like, in triumph. They have won.

Let’s not go too far down that road. They endure only for the moment. To give them the total victory is a step toward despair, which, as I keep reminding myself and the world, is an aspect of the mortal sin of sloth. Simply seeing and noticing the bags is a start. There’s no way, twenty-seven years ago, that any public official would have said what the governor did about plastic bags hanging from trees. The problem was invisible then. So, maybe a better bag law will come along. Maybe someone will make a better, cheaper bag snagger. Or maybe someone will find a cheaper way of making our snagger. Our patent has lapsed, but the copyright on the name Bag Snagger is still ours, so they’ll have to call it the Bag Snatcher, or something. Go for it, millennials! Nil desperandum! We’ll beat those bags yet.