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NYS Plastic Bag Ban On Pause Amid Pandemic

New York State Capitol

New York state’s plastic bag ban took effect on March 1, but like much of society, it is now on “pause” as supermarkets and retailers that remain open grapple with other issues. But advocates of the ban, and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, say it will get back on track.

Environmentalists viewed the prohibition of single use plastic bags as a victory, but the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed its full implementation. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has put regulation of the law on hold until at least June 15. Some grocery stores are no longer permitting shoppers to bring in their own reusable bags, fearing they could be a way of spreading the virus, and other stores are once again offering plastic bags.

Judith Enck, a former EPA Regional Administrator under President Obama and a regular WAMC Roundtable panelist, now runs the Beyond Plastics program at Bennington College in Vermont.

Enck, speaking via Skype, says the delay is a step backwards, but she expects the new law to ultimately survive.

“I hope this is a temporary pause,” Enck said.

She says the health of the grocery store workers is the most important consideration right now.

But she says there is no scientific data linking the spread of the virus to reusable bags. She says there is data, though, that indicates the virus can live on plastic for up to 3 days.

“The science just does not back up shifting to plastic bags,” she said. “But everyone is trying to make the best of a really difficult situation and I fully appreciate that.”

She says there is plenty of evidence that the single use plastic bags are harming the environment.

“Every year 23 billion plastic bags are used in New York State,” she said. “Even delaying the law by a month or two months or three months means that billions of plastic bags enter the environment.”

She says many of the bags end up as litter in trees and in parks, and in rivers and oceans. Only 5% of the bags are recycled.

Erica Ringwald, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, says the ban is in effect but the agency will not begin enforcing it until at least mid-June. That’s largely because of the pandemic, but also because the plastic bag manufacturing association and a Bodega association filed a lawsuit in late February. The legal action is stalled due to the partial shutdown of the courts. 

Ringwald says for now the agency is trying to educate shoppers about the change.

“We continue to encourage New Yorkers to transition to reusable bags when they shop,” Ringwald said. “And we are also encouraging folks to use common sense precautions to keep their bags clean.”

The DEC’s website has some tips.

Ringwald says the DEC is aware that some stores have banned reusable bags or gone back to using plastic bags. Some stores have had trouble sourcing enough paper bags due to supply disruption from the coronavirus. She says they are in “communication” with those store chains.

Enck, with Beyond Plastics, says one option for now is for shoppers to pack their own reusable bags so check out workers don’t need to come in contact with them. Some stores have already adopted that policy. 

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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