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New York eyes plastic bag ban that Madison County tried and failed to pass

Payne Horning
During a tour of the Madison County Landfill, Jim Zecca, director of the Madison County Department of Solid Waste, shows the stockpiles of plastic bags they collect.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing lawmakers to approve a ban on the plastic bags that are ubiquitous in grocery stores and the state's landfills. The goal is to remove the bags from the waste stream because of their damaging environmental effects and the expense to get rid of them. It's a policy Madison County lawmakers tried and failed to pass last year.

Plastic bags are a common nuisance at the Madison County landfill. Those that are not too dirty are packed together with other plastic waste for interested buyers, like a company that makes plastic lumber. But Jim Zecca, director of the Madison County Department of Solid Waste, says they often cannot get the bags out fast enough.

"We have a lot of them stockpiled in the building but we’re running out of room," Zecca said. "Any time we find an open market for them, we’ll try to market them as quickly as we can - even if we have to give them away at this point just to find a market rather than landfilling them."

Madison County officials consider their landfill a model for cutting down on waste. They recycle plastic and glass garbage, and have a plant on site that captures the methane gas the landfill emits to generate power. Zecca has also been working with SUNY Cobleskill staff and students on a building a gasifier at the landfill that would burn combustible waste, including plastic bags, to generate synthetic gas. But the project isn't complete, and the plastic bags continue to pile up. 

"They don’t decompose and break down," Zecca said. "They stay in the environment for a very long time. It could take 500 years to 1,000 years for them to break apart into small pieces, but even those small pieces stay in the environment."

In an attempt to cut down on the scourge of these plastics sacks, the Madison County Board of Supervisors started exploring a 10-cent fee on them last year. But before they could even debate it, the governor and the New York State Legislature rushed to stop New York city from passing a similar fee. So Madison County lawmakers switched gears, deciding to instead pursue an outright ban on the bags.

Chairman John Becker says it was a natural step for a county that is often on the cutting edge of environmental projects, like those at the landfill.

"We wanted to look at it to be ahead of the curve again," Becker said. "And I guess we just got mired down in the politics and the controversy of the whole thing."

Credit Christine Coe / Madison County Board of Supervisors
Madison County Board of Supervisors
Madison County lawmakers opened their proposed ban on plastic bags to the public.

Throughout several public hearings, business owners expressed concerns about the additional cost of replacing them with paper bags. And residents complained about the loss of the bags that they find convenient - some even threatened to shop outside of Madison County if it passed. But even with those criticisms, 75 percent of the recorded public comments supported the ban compared to 19 percent against.

Jim Goldstein, chair of the Board of Supervisor's Solid Waste and Recycling Committee, says despite that support the proposal was shelved.

"I was asked to delay a vote on this local law until after the election because some people who were running for reelection apparently were worried it would somehow hurt them politically," Goldstein said.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Becker says he pressed the pause button because there were not enough votes to pass the ban. In an attempt to gain more support, he started assembling an ad hoc committee earlier this year made up of grocers, supervisors and community members to take a more measured approach at implementing a ban while reducing the potential negative impacts. The initiative stalled again last month when Cuomo announced his statewide ban proposal.

Becker says he's happy to see state lawmakers take the lead on this, but expects they will also find that a plastic bag ban requires more than just votes.

"We are going to have to have a culture change and -I think the governor’s going to find this out- you’re not just going to be able to slam this into effect," Becker said. "You’re going to have to implement it slowly because we’ve probably had plastic bags for what 30, 40, 50 years and now you’re going to have to have people remember their recyclable bags and all of that stuff. I think the state can do it, but it’s going to be a long campaign."

Credit Payne Horning / WRVO News
Tops Market in Canastota

Goldstein, one of the ban's most ardent supporters, acknowledges the challenge of passing such a policy. 

"I think the biggest problem you have is some people don’t like change, even if it’s change for the better," Goldstein said. "The biggest mistake that any government could make is to not move forward with something because it's 'inconvenient.' How do you ever move forward with anything if you're not willing to make an adjustment - particularly something as important as the environment."

At the Tops Market in Canastota a few miles away from the Madison County Landfill, several customers leave the store with their groceries in reusable bags. But many more use plastic sacks. Nadine Galavotti says she’s game for a ban. The challenge will be selling it to those who are not. 

"I think it might be a good thing for the environment, but it’s going to make it harder for people as they’re doing their shopping weekly," Galavotti said. 

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.