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Paper Bag Fee: New York Counties Must Choose

Plastic shopping bags caught in trees along Central Avenue in Albany, New York.
Dave Lucas
Plastic shopping bags caught in trees along Central Avenue in Albany, New York.

Included in the new state budget in New York is the nation’s second statewide single-use plastic bag ban. One Albany lawmaker says it doesn’t go far enough.

Lawmakers passed the single-use shopping bag ban as part of the state budget. Assemblywoman Pat Fahy is a Democrat from Albany’s 109th district.   "We've made some historic changes here. We will be the second state in the country to ban plastic bags. 23 billion, single-use bags used every year just in New York. Each year. So it's a stunning statistic. We need to get on top of it. I'm very proud that we have finally, after a few years of effort, we have finally passed this ban."

It goes into effect in March. Former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck:   "It was long overdue. It's going to improve the environment, especially this time of year. I urge people to look up in the trees before leaves emerge and you see so many plastic bags. We know that within the next decade, for every three pounds of fish in the ocean there will be one pound of plastic. So we need to change the way we handle plastic packaging, and banning plastic bags is the important step in doing that, and I applaud the legislature and the governor for that accomplishment."

10th ward Albany Common Councilor Owusu Anane says the new law is a step in the right direction.  "When you look at the Pine Hills neighborhood, particularly Hamilton and Hudson, we have a lot of debris and plastic that's being littered all across that community, and to see that ban, environmentally it's gonna save the world and we have to protect it."

Under the new law, local counties can also impose a 5-cent fee on paper bags. The county could keep a portion of the proceeds, with the rest going to state environmental programs. Liz Moran is Environmental Policy Director for the New York Public Interest Research Group:   "We're disappointed there wasn't a statewide fee placed on paper bags. Paper is also energy consumptive and uses a lot of water. They also don't have great environmental consequences, plus, a fee on paper would incentive consumers to use reusable bags. Right now we're gonna end up with a patchwork effect, where counties may be able to be opting in, but some may not, which ends up having consequences for the entire state."

Fahy announced legislation that would eliminate an exemption for restaurants in the new law.   "The only ones that are subject to the plastic ban are the grocery stores. Not restaurants or carry-outs, the take-out restaurants. So even for instance you're in the Price Chopper and you're buying the ready-to-go meals, technically they're exempt."

Fahy says restaurants provide too many plastic bags to be left out of the law.   "And there's 50,000 restaurants, average 50,000 in just the state of New York."

Fahy unveiled a second bill that would allow businesses to keep 2 cents of the 5-cent fee on paper bags in counties that approve a fee.    "While I think we do need to provide reusable bags for the consumers, right, we want to change behavior. We don't want them relying as much on paper bags. I wanna put a one-year time limit on that and then have the two cents go back to the grocery store. Because grocery stores work on the margin, especially supermarkets. They're often working on single-digit margins of profit."

Three cents goes into the state environmental fund. Enck says in instances where plastic bags have been banned and a fee is placed on paper...   "...there's a tremendous shift among consumers to use reusable bags. It's a little inconvenient at first until you get into the habit."

Enck hopes the legislature and the governor will come back and "finish the job."   "...and that is to put a fee on paper in addition to banning plastic bags. You avoid the fee by bringing your own bag. Suffolk County, New York, put a fee on paper and plastic bags and in the past year saw the use of both of those types of bags decline by about eighty percent. That's a great accomplishment that we can do statewide."

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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