The Good and the Bad

Sunday, March 1, was the big day. New York State’s ban on single-use plastic shopping bags went into effect.

Well, sort of.

Yes, officially it is now state law, although thanks to a court ruling last week, unfortunately, it won’t be enforced until April 1. On top of that, there are some pretty major weaknesses to the ban, but it has indeed arrived and overall I think that it’s a great step in the right direction … and one that can certainly be built upon.

Now that it’s had a few days to sink in, I wanted to take a look at the basics of the ban, what I like about it and what I don’t like.

Plastic Bags used in New York StateThe Basics

The statute, which was passed last year by state lawmakers, bans single-use thin plastic bags at any retailer that collects state sales tax – including those for groceries, clothing, beauty products, pet supplies, auto parts, and more. It also allows cities and counties to charge five cents for paper bags, which only a few have done so far.

“Right this minute, plastic bags are hanging in trees, blowing down the streets, filling up our landfills and polluting our lakes, rivers and streams — all hurting our environment,” said Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York. “We took bold action to protect our environment and ban these environmental blights and with this campaign we’re going to make sure New Yorkers are ready and have all the facts.”

There are exemptions to the ban, some of which make sense and some that are certainly questionable, so it’s not perfect by any means, but in general I’m not going to complain too loudly.

What I like

New York State has a population of nearly 20 million people, so this ban presents a huge education and awareness opportunity that can influence a massive shift in how the public thinks about single-use plastic. In addition, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that those same 20 million people use over 23 billion single-use plastic bags annually, so the actual reduction of that huge number is something that I’ll gladly embrace, especially since the potential here is in the billions.

I’m also happy to see some common sense elements, such as not requiring people on public assistance programs (SNAP and WIC) to pay the municipal five-cent fee on paper bags. I know the fees will always be unpopular, but they will encourage the public to bring reusable bags with them, and when they are paid those fees will support the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, as well as a campaign to encourage the use of reusable bags

plastic bag ban in new york state

Great graphic from New York City.

What I Don’t Like

Exemptions were to be expected, as were various loopholes, but hey, as I said earlier, these things are rarely perfect. But no enforcement out of the gate? That’s unfortunate, not only because it seems a bit silly to start a ban if it won’t be enforced (is it even a ban?), but also because there is a small chance that the reason for the court asking for a delay on enforcement opens up a sliver of a chance for a reversal – although highly unlikely.

Another downer for me is what I view as extremely low fines. An individual retailer can be fined $250 for their first violation and another $500 for any additional violations in a single year. I don’t know how much of a deterrence that will be, especially for big box chain stores. I would have preferred fines 10 times bigger, but let’s see what the initial results are.

The exemptions that are beyond frustrating for me are those that allow plastic bags for:

  • Produce
  • Bulk food
  • Carryout/Takeaway food orders
  • Prescription drugs

I just don’t get why plastic is needed for any of those, but I’d love to know what the arguments were that allowed for them. I’d like to think that there were well thought out reasons for those, but I’m not holding my breath.

My Takeaway

Not perfect, but certainly NOT bad. Let’s not nitpick too much, and instead use this as an opening to foster  consumer behavioral change on a grand scale and as an inspiration to encourage other states and cities to follow suit. In my nearly four years of working with Plastic Oceans, I’ve learned that awareness within the general public about the problems associated to single-use plastic is nowhere near as high as what many of us in the movement think it is.

It’s simply not. Thus, I say let’s embrace these efforts of Governor Cuomo, and New York legislators, that seek to not only change that, but to also rid our public spaces of the scourge and blight of single-use plastic bags.