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What happens when you combine politics and activism with bodega owners and artists? An environmental movement to stop plastic bag use.

Vote With Your Tote was launched by a pro bono team of creatives and environmental experts in New York City.

Their goal is to combat the city's growing toxic waste problem by reducing the use of plastic bags. Each year, NYC residents use and discard approximately 10 billion single-use plastic grocery bags, a whopping $12.5 million disposal cost.


"Plastic bags are just a terrible form of waste ... it becomes litter on our streets and an eyesore," said Brad Lander, NYC council member and deputy leader for policy. "People across racial and economic lines care about their neighborhood, and reducing toxic waste is meaningful to them. People who live in public housing love and care about their neighborhood, and that's important for people to see."

All images courtesy of Vote With Your Tote.

The program is part of a bigger movement encouraging people to support a statewide Bring Your Own Bag law.

In New York, local residents and lawmakers, including the founder of PlasticBagLaws.org Jennie Romer, joined forces to persuade the city to adopt a law that would encourage customers to rely on reusable cloth bags instead of plastic. The law would implement a charge of 5 cents for every plastic bag at a grocery store — but it's not about the money. It's about the fee encouraging more eco-friendly practices.

"It really helps when there are conversations about what the bag fee is and what it really means to change behavior," Romer said. "Initially, a lot of people we talked to were like, 'no.' They didn't really didn't like the idea of a fee because no one likes the idea of paying money for something. So when they talked a lot about 'the why' and a lot of people really came around. And that was powerful."

The law passed in NYC but then was blocked by the state government in early 2017.

Given the success of these bag fee programs in other cities and states and multiple studies showing a state-level bag fee can create a 45%-95% decrease in plastic bag usage, this block was a frustrating step back for the movement.

In spite of the government's inaction, community members, politicians, and lawyers have persisted. Romer is still working to get laws passed and implemented, and she continues to focus on the often unheard voices among community members to push the movement forward.

"I've worked on this for six years, and a lot of what we see on the videos is that — we see a lot of interest groups that are in Park Slope and the Upper West Side," Romer said. "So I wanted to talk to adults and I wanted to talk with people that were in communities that are often overlooked in these kinds of conversations. We were trying to think of, 'Who is an unexpected ally?'"  

Vote With Your Tote was there to encourage reusable bag use and push for the plastic bag law to be passed.

The project leaders had two primary goals in mind: To get locals to shop with reusable bags and to get Gov. Andrew Cuomo to implement bag legislation to help make NYC a cleaner and more environmentally friendly place.

Romer began working with Papel and Caneta, a nonprofit collective with leading industry ad industry creatives. The collective partnered with five bodegas across different NYC boroughs, pairing each with a talented artist who could design creative tote bags unique to their business. This direct relationship turned the movement into something that was up-close and personal, a particular and important approach to getting locals involved.

"All the creatives [at Papel and Caneta] volunteer on projects, and we spent the weekend with people ... going around and just talking to owners and different neighborhoods," Romer said. "We were seeking out people that already had an inclination that this [project] sounded interesting."

To change state and federal policies, action has to start at home.

The local movement to implement plastic bag laws is especially important right now. Within the past year, local political engagement has increased, a welcome sign that Americans care about the nation starting at the neighborhood level. Romer noted that plastic bag laws are a tangible, simple way to use local political action to positively impact communities.

"A lot of people feel overwhelmed by everything that's happening at the federal level," Romer said in a press release. "Plastic bags laws represent a way to act locally to address something that people care about in their community: plastic bag overconsumption and litter. Making people aware of the issues caused by plastic bags and effective solutions — bags laws! — is a great first step toward making real change in communities, namely empowering New Yorkers to talk with their friends and call their politicians."

Vote With Your Tote will continue its grassroots movement by getting more people involved and making sure that Cuomo makes good on his promise to address NYC’s most pressing environmental laws. By centering local communities and bridging the gap between art and activism, Vote With Your Tote can totally make it happen.

To learn more about plastic bag laws in NYC and around the nation, visit their website.

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