In an ambitious effort to reduce litter and waste, the state of New York has implemented a controversial ban on the distribution of single-use plastic bags—once a ubiquitous feature of grocery stores, shops and bodegas.
The law, which was passed last year and went into effect on Sunday, prohibits many stores from handing out plastic bags to customers. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has launched a campaign—#BYOBagNY—that seeks to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags, preferably reusable ones, with them when shopping.
“Plastic bag usage affects both our communities and environment,” says the department on its website. “Plastic bags can be seen stuck in trees, as litter in our neighborhoods, and floating in our waterways. … Using reusable bags makes sense and is the right thing to do.”
As Anne Barnard reports for the New York Times, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has said that the goal of the initiative is “not to be punitive,” but instead to educate consumers and businesses about environmentally-friendly practices. The state will wait until April 1 to start penalizing stores that violate the law, according to NBC New York. Businesses that do not comply will first receive a warning, but could pay $250 for a subsequent violation and a $500 fine for another violation within the same year.
Exemptions to the rule include plastic bags used for takeout food, uncooked meat or fish, bulk produce, and prescription drugs. Newspaper bags, garbage and recycling bags, and garment bags are exempt, too.
Retailers will be allowed to provide single-use paper bags, and local governments have the option of imposing a five-cent fee for each bag a customer uses. Per the Times, two of these cents will be allocated to “programs aimed at distributing reusable bags.” The remaining three cents will be given to New York’s Environmental Protection Fund.
With its new law, New York becomes the third state to ban single-use plastic bags, following in the footsteps of California and Oregon. Hawaii is said to have a “de facto ban,” since all of its local governments prohibit plastic bags.
Officials say that New Yorkers use 23 billion plastic bags each year, contributing to a major global pollution problem. Single-use plastic bags are as destructive as they are convenient. They often end up in oceans, where they entangle with or clog the stomachs of marine animals. Most plastic bags do not biodegrade (even ones marketed as biodegradable may not live up to their name), instead breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces that can be ingested by various organisms and accumulate in the food chain. As they decompose, plastic bags also emit greenhouse gases, thus contributing to global warming.
When New York’s plastic bag ban was first passed, some advocates criticized the government for stopping short of mandating a paper bag fee, potentially paving the way for consumers to simply use paper rather than reusable bags. As Ben Adler points out for Wired, paper bags may actually have a higher carbon footprint than plastic, largely because it takes more energy to produce and transport them. One study by the government of Denmark also found that if you look at the products’ entire life cycle from factory to landfill, certain types of reusable bags would have to be reused thousands of times to make them a more sustainable option than plastic bags.
Still, explains Jennifer Clapp, Canada research chair in global food security and sustainability at the University of Waterloo, to Ula Chrobak of Popular Science, such broad assessments are not “always that helpful.”
“Many of the life cycle assessment studies are basically looking at embodied energy and climate change,” she says, “and that doesn’t address these questions of permanence, toxicity, and hazards.”
The ban has also come under fire from store owners who worry about how the law will impact business. Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, tells CNN’s Bre’Anna Grant and Evan Simko-Bednarski that the “biggest problem right now” is the shortage and rising cost of paper bags available to retailers.
Without paper bags on site, “[t]he only choices for a customer who forgot a cloth bag will be to buy a reusable bag on site, which might cost $1 or more,” notes Calvin, “or carry out their purchases in their arms, which makes a convenience store an inconvenience store.”
Proponents of the ban cite the importance of training shoppers to stop expecting that plastic bags will simply be handed to them at check-out.
“Right now, the bag is just so automatic for both you and the clerk,” Peter Iwanowicz, a member of New York State’s Climate Action Council, tells the Times. “You accept the bag handed to you even though you didn’t need it for that one greeting card.”
The ban, adds Iwanowicz, “is the first really big push back against disposable culture.”