Adventures in Bag Snagging

The New York State Assembly just announced that it’ll pass a bill to postpone the New York City law charging a nickel for a plastic or paper bag at checkout “until at least January 2018,” according to the New York Times. The argument is that poor people will be overly burdened by the law, which is absurd; there will still be more than enough plastic bags in circulation for people to reuse.

But it’s good news for those of us with a Bag Snagger! In December, I crowdfunded one—a grappling hook on a pole, with a bunch of attachable poles to extend the reach—for use in the neighborhood. Having now tried it out a few times, I have an update for the donors and everyone else.

My first outing was with Charles, a reader who feels as passionately about plastic bags as I do. We met outside Sarabeth’s on a cold, blustery morning, and we got to work on a few of the trees across Greenwich Street. Alas, we quickly learned that our Bag Snagger was defective—we were unable to use any of the extension poles, limiting us to bags within five feet overhead. That was enough to get a taste of how satisfying it is to remove bags from trees, and we learned a few valuable lessons:

1) Sub-freezing temperatures do not make for pleasant bag snagging, not least of all because the pole is metal. This goes double for Tribeca’s windy western edge.

2) It would be unnervingly easy to brain your partner with the tool. (The Bag Snagger instructions recommend a hard hat and gloves, but I do have a shred of dignity left, and I guess I value it more than my head.)

A couple of weeks later, the replacement part having arrived, I went out on my own. That tree in front of 250 Church—the one between Franklin and Leonard that was enshrouded in plastic—had been driving me to distraction. En route, a low-hanging bag on Chambers caught my eye.

3) Sometimes bags are full of water, or at least let’s hope it was water.

I spent an hour, probably longer, on the 250 Church tree (above). The Bag Snagger is not ideal: What would really be helpful is an extremely long pole with tiny scissors at the end, but instead you have to maneuver the hooks and blades in various ways—tugging, pushing, slicing, twirling the plastic like it’s a strand of spaghetti. The 250 Church tree wasn’t covered in bags but long pieces of thin plastic that had knotted themselves around the branches.

4) A Swiss Army knife is extremely helpful for when you can pull the branch down enough to simply cut the plastic off.

5) There is a high risk of collateral damage. Sorry, tree! (The branch in the photo below had broken off some time ago—it was stuck in the tree because of all the plastic.)

I managed to pick away all but a few wisps of plastic that the wind should take care of, but not before I learned the most valuable lesson of all. And I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

6) “Make sure that the turn-screw on the main telescoping pole is turned tightly before using,” say the instructions. “If it is not secure, the sections may detach and you could lose the pole with the Snagger grapnel in the tree.”

The hook was up to its hilt in a thick knot of plastic, so I couldn’t simply use another pole to poke it out. What I needed was a ladder or something to stand on…. At the south end of the block was a garbage can—nearly empty, a small mercy—along with a cop ticketing a car. I explained to her why I was about to move the garbage can, so she wouldn’t think I was up to no good. After lugging the garbage can over to the tree, upending it, and clambering atop it, I still couldn’t reach the pole, so I had to shimmy up the trunk a bit. Not only could I reach the pole, I was also relieved of that last shred of dignity.

“Are you with Sanitation?” asked the cop.

“On a sort of volunteer basis.”

The next morning, when I met Charles for another round, I had lost some of my mojo. Lesson #6 was powerful. What if the hook was suspended above a sidewalk? Or a parked car? Or a street? What if we couldn’t get to it, even if we found a ladder? (What if it fell on someone while we were looking for that ladder?) Would we have to call the fire department? Should I buy insurance for this?

I explained to Charles and his friend Rachel, whom he had run into on the way, that we had to stay away from bags that are too high or branches that might snag the Bag Snagger and leave it in a precarious position. No matter: There were more than enough bags to keep us occupied for an hour. We cleaned trees on Greenwich, in Washington Market Park (where we also dislodged a toy), and on Chambers.

Rachel headed on her way, and Charles and I moved on to Bogardus Garden. We were going after a tough wad of of deflated balloons when someone approached from behind. “I don’t know who you are, but I love what you’re doing,” said Tory Weill, president of the board of Friends of Bogardus Garden. I turned to face her. “Oh, it’s you!” she said.

7) Being normal is overrated.


  1. Can’t quite tell you how much I love this. It’s a perfect example of what I call “Stop griping and just do the work”.

  2. Since the day I read your first post on the Bag Swagger, I was hopping you will use it on the pink plastic bag pictured.
    I can’t thank you enough!

  3. Erik, thank you!!

  4. Somehow I’m missing how you got the device out of the tree.

  5. As one of Erik’s junior partners in bag-snagging, I hope everyone who loved his account of our exploits will instruct their NY State Assemblymembers to resist and defeat the Albany power grab to overturn the local law passed last year by the City Council and signed by the Mayor, mandating the nickel fee for grocery bags. Contact info (and district maps) here: Take it from me, the city’s law will be a zillion times more effective than bag-snagging in keeping our street trees healthy and safe.

  6. Good work. Sorry I wasn’t there to witness it…

    Also, along with a 5 cents fee, how about a law that says someone will get 2 cents back if they return a bag- like with bottle deposits. That would encourage people not to just throw them away, where they end up in landfill, or worse, get loose and blow around the streets leading to the whole tree bag problem.

  7. This is simply amazing. Thank you for doing this!

  8. This made my morning for so many reasons. Thank you so much, Erik, for all you do.

  9. Erik Torkells is God.

  10. Thank you, Erik, for doing this (and thanks are in order for Rachel and Charles as well)…as a Leonard St resident that Church St tree has been on my radar for years too. Appreciate your taking action while I did little more than ponder what to do.

    I’d be happy to join the next outing if you’re looking for additional manual labor, moral support or camaraderie.

  11. Wonderful and much appreciated! Thank you.

  12. As a Citizen Pruner, I know the bane of tangled plastic in trees. Don’t worry if small branches suffer in bag removal. Trees grow back and enjoy occasional pruning. One cardinal rule of Citizen Pruning is “feet on the GROUND at all times”. The pole I use has a saw and a lopper at the end. It also extends by telescoping so the extension can never disengage. I think a good tree pruner would be just as good, or better, than the bag grabber. My pol extends to 16′

  13. Thanks Eric. Great community service.

  14. Thank you so much for taking all the bags out of the tree at 250 Church St!