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New York's plastic bag ban takes effect March 1


On March 1, grocery stores and other retail outlets will no longer be providing shoppers with single-use plastic bags, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration is making a last-minute push to get the word out on the plastic bag ban.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has stepped up its efforts in recent days to help New Yorkers understand the new rules, running ads on social media and running videos on its website and on its YouTube channel.

The agency is also distributing 270,000 reusable bags to low- and moderate-income communities.

Cuomo said New Yorkers benefit from the law.

“It’s no doubt that this is smart; you see these bags all over the place,” said Cuomo, who added the bags hang in trees like “bizarre Christmas ornaments.”

“I’ve been 30 miles out in the ocean and you see garbage floating and plastic bags floating,” Cuomo continued. “It’s terrible.”

Credit NYS Department of Environmental Conservation
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation

Paper bags will still be available, though individual counties have the option to charge a 5-cent fee for each bag. Several counties have decided to opt in. A number of grocery chains also have decided to charge a fee for the bags.

DEC officials said the goal of the law is not to just switch to paper bags but for shoppers to bring in their own reusable bags.

Some kinds of single-use plastic bags will still be legal, including takeout bags at restaurants and delis, and bags used for meat, fish and produce.

The environmental agency is giving stores and shoppers some time to adjust to the new law, saying it will be several months before they start imposing fines on businesses that violate the rules.

Backers of the bag ban, including Judith Enck, who runs Beyond Plastics at Bennington College, said they worry that Cuomo’s environmental agency may have inadvertently created a loophole for thicker kinds of single-use plastic bags to be manufactured and sold.

“It was most unfortunate,” Enck said. “Why even open the door to that?”

The DEC regulations say bags thicker than 10 mils will still be permissible. The agency said that thickness is only for industrial uses like home construction, and not for shopping bags. 

Enck, a former EPA administrator, said overall, the change will be a positive one and will cut down on the amount of plastic waste.

Polls show the public is in favor of bringing their own bags to shop.

The plastics industry warns, though, that the change might not go smoothly, predicting a paper bag shortage if enough people don’t bring reusable bags to the store. They also said it might be harder to import the plastic-based reusable bags if trade disruptions with China and other Asian manufacturing countries continue because of the coronavirus. 

“They’re going to have a mess on their hands when this really goes into effect,” said Matt Seaholm, with the American Recyclable Bag Alliance, which is part of the Plastics Industry Association.

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.