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Activists Press NYSDEC Over Plastic Bag Ban Enforcement

WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Over a hundred evironmental groups are urging the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to enforce the plastic bag ban and bottle bill law. The DEC disputes the criticism.
The new law banning single-use plastic bags took effect March 1st. Strict enforcement had been set to begin May 15th. The pandemic pushed that law aside (along with the returnable component of the bottle bill) as concerns arose that reuseable shopping bags and returned bottles and cans could harbor and spread the coronavirus.

Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck is also president of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College. She says 122 environmental and community groups sent a letter to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.

"We recognize that our state is in a public health crisis and protecting health needs to be the top priority for state government. And we really do appreciate the work that Commissioner Seggos and the women and men who work at the DEC have been doing during the pandemic. However, the economy is starting to reopen, and we have to make sure that environmental protection laws that were in place before COVID now take full effect."

Enck says the letter asks the commissioner three things:

"First, to start enforcing New York's plastic bag ban, which is still the law. Second, we would like the DEC to tell stores that people should be able to bring their own reusable bags into stores. We urge consumers to make sure those bags are washed with warm water if they're plastic to desanitize them, and if people are able, pack your own groceries, just to make sure that grocery clerks are not concerned about contracting the virus. But we also know from the DEC that surface contact is quite minimal. The way we get coronavirus is from aerosols in person to person contact. And third, it's really time to reinstate New York's Bottle Bill law."

Enck points out that stores continue to charge the nickel deposit but have not been accepting returns.

"We're recommending that the DEC inform stores that it's now time to reinstate the bottle bill with appropriate social distancing at the bottle return areas. Just like the supermarkets have capably been doing at supermarket checkouts. We think these three initiatives by the DEC, which essentially is enforcing our existing laws, would go a really long way. We are particularly concerned about the increased use of plastic bags. Prior to the plastic bag ban New Yorkers used a staggering 23 billion plastic bags every year."

DEC Chief of Staff Sean Mahar says the agency is sticking to policy.

"Any notion that the state is somehow put our regulatory responsibilities for programs like the bag ban or bottle deposit law on the back burner during the COVID response are just not true. New York's ban on single use plastic bags went into effect as planned on March 1st, and we continue to prioritize working with stores, retailers and consumers across the state, to advance our BYO bag New York education effort, and promote the use of reusable bags. As we have said all along our efforts have focused on education first and we have continued to provide science-based common sense precautions on how to keep reusable bags clean, and we continue to work directly with stores, especially those that operate in other states, to ensure they allow consumers to use reusable bags with requirements such as patrons packing their own bags. We've continued to hear strong support from New Yorkers on this important ban on single-use plastic bags and will continue to help all residents make the transition to reusable bags."

As for bottles, Mahar says DEC expects facilities across the state to take the necessary steps to resume redemption no later than June 3rd.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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