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Food Stores Prepare For NY's Upcoming Plastic Bag Ban

New York’s ban on single use plastic bags at grocery stores and other outlets takes effect March 1, and stores that haven’t already made the change are gearing up for it. One food store has never offered single-use plastic bags in its 40-year history, and they say no one has been bothered by that.

As you walk through the Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, you’ll notice its emphasis on healthy foods. There are nuts and grains of all kinds in its large bulk food section, organic ice creams in its freezers, and lots of vegan-friendly cuisine. 

And the produce? Well, as the sign reads: “If it grows, we have it.”

On this snowy Tuesday morning, it’s fairly calm and quiet, but on weekends and before a holiday it is jam packed with shoppers.

All of the shoppers here, for decades, have either brought their own bags, paid a small fee to use a paper bag, or taken their groceries home in one of the used delivery boxes that are piled high in the front of the store.

Marketing manager Alex Mytelka has been with the co-op in various roles for six years. He says the store supports the plastic bag ban. But he says there won’t be a big transition.

“We’re lucky that over half of our shoppers are already using reusable bags,” Mytelka said. “We sell dozens of different kinds. It’s kind of a normal thing here.”

The Co-op has not always been completely free of plastic bags. Old-timers remember a period in the 1980’s where members brought in plastic bags from other stores. But that practice has long since been abandoned.

Ron Royne works part-time as a cashier. He’s checking out groceries for Marsha Larabee, who works as a volunteer member in the bulk foods department in exchange for a discount on her purchases.

The store has various policies to try to encourage the use of reusable bags. Shoppers receive a five cent credit for each bag they bring in and use. They can get that amount taken off their bill, or get a token, worth a nickel, to donate to a variety of charities.   

Larabee says she’s used her own cloth reusable bags for years, and she’s happy about the new plastic bag ban. But she doesn’t think the transition is going to be easy for everyone.

“I think it’s going to be hard, it’s a whole new mindset,” said Larabee. She thinks “big major grocery stores” will have a problem.

“This is going to be probably the easiest store in the area, because we’ve been on that bandwagon for a long time,” Larabee said.

Many chain grocery stores in New York have been publicizing the change, offering discounts on reusable bags, and even, in some cases, banning plastic bags early, before the law takes effect.   

The Co-op is also trying to encourage shoppers to not just switch to paper bags as an alternative. Recently, the store upped the price of paper bags to 15 cents. Alex Mytelka, the marketing manager, says people are already using them less.

He says someday, he’d like to phase them out, too. But for now, they are staying.

“We don’t want to not have something available for people,” he said.

(The author is a member shopper at the co-op, but does not currently have anything to do with its inner workings.)

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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