Blair Horner: New York Bans Plastic Bags

Apr 1, 2019

A lot happened in this year’s new state budget agreement – from increased spending to the establishment of a commission to develop a voluntary system of public financing for elections.  Many of these decisions were consequential, but one will be noticed by all New Yorkers – a ban on the use of plastic shopping bags.  The ban goes into effect in one year.

Thin plastic shopping bags have been targeted because their lightweight nature makes them easily airborne. They can be found hanging from tree branches and clogging city drains. They are eaten by wildlife, including cattle and other large animals, and when shredded by birds and other small creatures.

In marine environments, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. Fish eat them.  A number of whales have also died as a result of eating plastic bags.  That includes a whale found recently in the Philippines with more than 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach.  Then there’s the latest horrifying news that micro-plastics are now being found in our tap water, and even our bodies.

It’s been estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans annually and the average American throws out 185 pounds of plastic every year.  It’ll only get worse unless states and countries act.

And the world has begun to act.  So far, at least 127 nations have imposed bans or taxes on plastic bags, according to a United Nations tally through July 2018.  Europe began phasing out plastic bags 15 years ago. In March, the European Parliament took steps to ban 10 items most commonly found on European beaches, including bags, by 2021.

The United States, while late to the attack on plastic bags, have seen action at the local level.  The most successful model for banning plastic bags comes from California, where they also included a fee on paper bags.  Like New York, California has a large, diverse population with large urban areas, extensive rural communities, large suburban regions and a substantial coastline.

After California acted, not only were that state’s consumers able to handle the change in their shopping experience, but there was a significant reduction in the number of plastic bags found on California beaches.  According to the Los Angeles Times, “Plastic bags (both the banned and the legal variety) accounted for 3.1% of the litter collected from the state’s beaches during the 2017 Coastal Cleanup Day, down from to 7.4% in 2010.”

If California can do it, why not New York?

New Yorkers use 23 billion plastic bags annually. A significant number of these bags make their way into the environment, threatening wildlife and waterways.  New York City alone uses more than 10 billion single-use plastic bags a year.  The New York City Department of Sanitation currently estimates that it collects an average of 1,700 tons of plastic bags per week, costing $12.5 million per year in collection and disposal expenses.  

Tucked into this year’s state budget, Governor Cuomo and lawmakers agreed to a new law that bans the use of many plastic shopping bags.  New York’s ban would grant exceptions to food takeout bags, bags used to wrap meat or deli products, garment bags, and bags sold in bulk, including garbage pail liner bags.

Banning plastic bags was the right move to make – the Governor and the Legislature deserve praise for doing it.

The new law goes into effect in one year yet does not contain a key element found in California’s law – a fee on paper bags.  Paper bags are also bad for the environment because of the water, energy, and carbon emissions required to make and transport them.

Instead of a statewide fee on non-plastic shopping bags, the new state law allows, but does not require, cities and counties the opportunity to charge a 5-cent fee on paper bags.  This provision will undoubtedly result in a patchwork system across the state.  And in those localities that do not charge the fee, an increased use in paper bags will cause solid waste headaches.

Cities and counties in New York should opt-in to the 5-cent fee on paper.  The public should call on their local elected officials and encourage them to move to add a paper bag fee as soon as possible.  A bonus? The fee goes to support New York’s program that funds various environmental efforts, including recycling, and supports the distribution of reusable shopping bags across the state.

April is the month in which the nation celebrates Earth Day, a day to evaluate how we are doing in terms of preserving the environment.  Of course, there is a lot of work still to do.  But when it comes to plastic bags, New York has taken an important step in curbing the use of plastics that litters our streets and waterbodies. 

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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