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Plastic bag ban gaining momentum in Albany

Keng Susumpow

The sponsors of a bill to ban single-use plastic bags in New York are optimistic that the measures will be part of the new state budget. But there are still details to be worked out, including whether there should be a fee on paper bags.

Lawmakers and environmental groups stood outside the Assembly chambers in a Capitol filled with groups making their last-minute pitches for items in the state budget.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan of Buffalo held up a crumpled plastic bag and said the overuse of the bags is an environmental scourge.

"Buffalo is a town on Lake Erie, next to the Niagara River, and every year, we spend a lot of taxpayer dollars pulling these out of our waterways," Ryan said. "They get into the storm sewers, they get into the sanitary sewers, they get into the flood control units." 

Assembly sponsor and Environmental Committee chair Steve Englebright said he’s been lobbying for the ban for decades. With both houses of the Legislature now controlled by Democrats, he said he believes it can finally happen.

"I’ve waited 40 years, and my hair is falling out," he joked. "I don’t want to wait any longer."

Englebright said a fee on paper bags is also being discussed but has not yet been agreed to.

Englebright and the Senate sponsor, Todd Kaminsky, are from Long Island, where some local governments have their own rules banning bags or imposing fees on their use.

Kaminsky, who is also the Senate Environmental Committee chair, said it’s possible that there will be an opt-out for communities who either have their own plans in place or don’t want to impose a paper bag fee. And there could be a fee exemption for lower-income New Yorkers, he said, but it’s all still being discussed.

"I’m optimistic," Kaminsky said. "The details are still being ironed out, but we’re getting there."

Kaminsky was asked whether he thought potential opposition to imposing a fee on paper bags might "scuttle" the plastic ban. 

"I’m hoping for no scuttling," Kaminsky said. "I’m in the no-scuttling camp."

Liz Moran, the environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said a fee on paper bags could be a good tool to get the public accustomed to bringing their own shopping bags to grocery stores. 

"And then once they pay the fee, ‘Oh, we have to bring a bag,’ " Moran said. "People in other states have adjusted quite well."

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said a fee on paper bags was part of the discussion between herself, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a closed-door leaders meeting Wednesday morning.

"There has been a conversation that if you just ban plastic, then you’re flooded with paper, and how is that resolved," said Stewart-Cousins.

Cuomo, speaking on March 22, said he wants to include the plastic bag ban in the budget, and is open to "compromising" on whether there should be a fee on paper bags and whether local governments can opt out of the rules.

"I don’t want to lose the plastic bag ban for disagreement over the paper fee," Cuomo said. 

Cuomo’s senior adviser, Rich Azzopardi, in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon said he’s "encouraged by the emerging consensus on this issue." He said curbing the use of plastic bags, which he called an "environmental blight," has long been a priority.  

Opponents include the Food Industry Alliance of New York, the trade group for food retailers and wholesalers. In a statement, the group said the ban would result in "severe consequences for New York’s retail food industry" and "further bolsters New York’s anti-business reputation."

The group is not opposed to charging fees on both single-use plastic and paper bags available in grocery stores. FIA President Mike Durant said a fee-based program in Suffolk County has worked well.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.