In one of the most significant efforts in years to reduce the amount of waste generated in the Empire State, New York officials have adopted legislation that will ban single-use plastic carryout bags and allow cities and counties to place a five-cent fee on paper carryout bags.
Now that the Governor and Legislature have put the legal structure in place for the demise of plastic carryout bags, the focus is shifting to localities for action to limit single-use paper bags.
Here is a brief rundown on the latest developments:
The New Plastic Bag Law
The plastic bag legislation, which was among the proposals recently advanced as part of New York State’s frenzied budget process, prohibits the distribution of plastic carryout bags by retailers in stores throughout the state, beginning March 1, 2020. According the Department of Environmental Conservation, more than 23 billion plastic bags are discarded every year in New York State.
The ban applies to plastic carryout bags used by grocery stores and other retail outlets, but not restaurants or food delivery services. Bags used by consumers to package meats, fruits and vegetables, as well as trash bags, garment bags and newspaper delivery bags are also not covered by the ban.
The new statute does not impose a fee on paper carryout bags, as Senators Todd Kaminsky, Liz Krueger and their colleagues had originally proposed. Their approach was supported by NRDC and other environmental groups and solid waste experts, because of concern that legislation dealing only with plastic bags would dramatically boost the number of paper carryout bags distributed throughout the state.
Paper bags present their own set of environmental consequences. The transportation of paper products from forests to pulping mills to retail outlets consumes large amounts of fossil-fuel and emits ground level air contaminants. And the paper-making process itself is energy intensive and a major source of water pollution.
Although the newly approved legislation does not set a statewide fee on paper bags, it allows cities and counties around the state to adopt local ordinances that would establish such fees on bags distributed by retailers within their jurisdiction. The fee is designed to discourage shoppers from simply switching from plastic to paper and encourage the use reusable carryout bags instead.
In cities and counties that adopt a five-cent fee on paper bags, the funds collected are to be split between the state and localities. Forty per cent of the monies would be returned to the cities and counties for purchasing and distributing reusable bags to residents, starting with low- and fixed-income communities; the balance remaining would be deposited in the State’s Environmental Protection Fund.
Paper bag fee laws adopted by cities or counties will, by law, exempt customers using SNAP or WIC (food-stamp) programs from paying the fee. However, the hope is that the widespread availability of reusable bags will lead to reduced paper bag consumption by all income groups.
Despite its failure to take across-the-board action to discourage the use of paper carryout bags, the legislation that was enacted represents genuine progress. The job isn’t complete, but the new law is a significantly strong foundation on which to build.
Paper Bag Fee Campaigns Gearing Up
Around the state, campaigns to adopt five-cent fee laws on single-use carryout paper bags are gearing up.
In New York City, the effort to pass legislation establishing a five-cent fee on paper carryout bags is already underway. Councilmembers Brad Lander, Margaret Chin, Antonio Reynoso, Donovan Richards, Keith Powers and Rafael Espinal turned out for a City Hall press conference the other day, announcing the new legislative push. A hearing on the new bill is scheduled for next week. And New York City could be the first jurisdiction in the state to adopt the new paper bag fee.
That would be poetic justice. It was Councilmembers Lander and Chin, two longtime environmental champions, who first introduced local legislation to deal with both plastic and paper bags in New York City six years ago. That bill, which passed in the Council but was later preempted by the State, is what sparked state legislative interest and ultimately led to the new statewide law on plastic (and paper) bags.
Long Island’s Suffolk County has had its own successful bag fee in place for both plastic and paper since 2018. According to a recent report by the Food Industry Alliance, the use of plastic and paper bags has been down by about 80 per cent since the fee law took effect. Under the new state law, plastic bags will now be banned in Suffolk County as well, effective next March. A five-cent fee on paper carryout bags will remain in place. Credit goes to County Legislator William R. Spencer -- a physician and sponsor of important environmental initiatives including the county’s bag law -- and his legislative colleagues for leading the way.
Similarly, the Ulster County legislature has already adopted, and County Executive Mike Hein has signed into law, “The Bring Your Own Bag Act.” It bans plastic carryout bags and places a five-cent fee on paper bags, effective July 2019, in that mid-Hudson county.
In nearby Westchester County, sparks of reform are firing. Several localities (including Hastings-on-Hudson, New Castle, Rye, Rye Brook) already have bag laws on the books. Westchester County legislators, led by Kitley Covill, introduced legislation last year to slash litter and pollution from plastic and paper bags. They are likely to revise their bill now, in the wake of the new state law. Environmental groups are working with community activists and the legislature’s environmental committee chair Nancy Barr to move Westchester legislation in 2019.
And in the State’s capital city, Albany County legislators had placed a “Reusable Shopping Bag Promotion Act” on their 2019 agenda, even before the statewide plastic bag law was enacted. Local activists and state environmental groups are encouraged by the opportunity to move a fee bill on paper bags forward in that county as well.
So many community activists, local groups, school kids and larger environmental organizations have worked for years with elected officials to secure passage of statewide and city/county laws to curb the ever-growing litter and pollution problems posed by single-use carryout bags. A very incomplete listing of those deserving thanks includes: Citizens Committee for New York City, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Cafeteria Culture, Environmental Advocates, Green Schools Alliance, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, NY Audubon, NYLCV, NYPIRG, Jennie Romer’s “plasticbag.org”, Riverkeeper (go Jeremy Cherson!), Sierra Club, Surfrider, The Nature Conservancy, 360.org, and We Act for Environmental Justice.
Avoiding the manufacture, transportation and disposal of billions of plastic bags every year is significant in and of itself. But nobody believes this legislation is the be all and end all. What it does do is address one piece of the much larger problems of fossil fuel extraction and consumption. And it builds momentum for further change.