Waste Watch: New York Begins Enforcing Plastic Bag Ban

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many existing recycling policies, particularly those involving plastic.

Now, while this may in effect be a bit of a blessing in disguise – as it highlights the flaws in our touching but misplaced faith in techno fixes such as calling for the recycling fairy to solve our plastic problem – the net effect of cancelling many recycling schemes is to burden us with more rubbish of which  we need to dispose.

(For more detail on how the pandemic has – temporarily?- killed recycling, see my earlier post, Coronavirus Kayoes U.S. Recycling, as well as these subsequent crossposts by others, Rubbish Is Piling Up and Recycling Has Stalled – Waste Systems Must Adapt and Recycling Isn’t Enough to Tackle the World’s Worsening Plastic Pollution Crisis).

Against this backdrop, New York has finally implemented its ban on most single-use plastic bags, originally supposed to take effect in March. At this point, one should applaud the New York ban, which is steadily marching forward despite the steadily worsening COVID-19 crisis, which has seen a second wave of infection arise in places that had presumed the infection had been brought under control, including New York and much of Europe. Of course, my more cynical side feels compelled to report that this ban is exactly the kind of low-cost virtue signalling approach to public policy that passes for serious action in these United States, so I was not surprised to see our old friend, Andrew Cuomo, who has done such a lamentable job with COVID-19,  signed the measure into law, in March 2019 saying:

“You see plastic bags hanging in trees, blowing down the streets, in landfills and in our waterways, and there is no doubt they are doing tremendous damage,” Gov. Cuomo said when he signed the legislation. “Twelve million barrels of oil are used to make the plastic bags we use every year and by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish. “ (See The New York plastic bag ban is finally being enforced in businesses across the state).

The New York ban is a reminder that the appearance of COVID-19 has not, alas, chased our other problems away. Yet rather than lauding our ability to pluck such low-hanging fruit, we now need to address some of the broader issues that arise from our reliance on plastic packaging, whether single-use or otherwise.

Details of New York Changes

As Spectrum News NY1 reports in New York’s Plastic Bag Ban to Resume Monday,

Under the law, customers must bring their own bag, or pay a five-cent fee for a paper bag. If retailers distribute the single-use plastic bags, they will be fined.

Importantly, the plastic bag ban does not include produce bags for meat, fish, vegetables or fruit.

The ban was held up by the pandemic, since a crucial part was that customers would bring their own disposable bags. These were seen as a possible vector for COVID-29 transmission.

Another obstacle was a lawsuit by Long Island’s Poly-Pak Industries. This August, this manufacturer lost its bid before the New York State Supreme Court , and as the New York Post reports in Long-delayed New York plastic-bag ban to kick off on Monday:

Last month, the judge gave the green-light for the ban to move forward as long as merchants had one-month’s notice it was coming.

The last time I was in New York – December 2019 – I observed many merchants gearing up to comply with the ban. So the start-stop nature of implementation may have wrong-footed many of them, but registers as a small challenged to others retail businesses have had to confront this year.

In addition, however, as The Post reports in New York’s Oct. 19 plastic bag ban meets new challenges, other lawsuits brought by bodegas and supermarkets remain pending.

Business Support for Change

Despite these lawsuits, Spectrum News NY1 reports that some businesses and others and others see the rationale for change:

While some business owners remain uncertain on the impact it may have on business, others are consider it a necessary change.

“Supporting the no plastic bag ban is one way for us to support a positive change in our world,” said Badr Alsaidi, who owns a few bodegas in the Bronx.

Alsaidi has been preparing for the ban to take effect and embraces it for its environmental benefits.

“Plastic in general is one huge cause of climate change. This is one way for us to step in with recycling,” Alsaidi added.

Alsaidi also works with the Yemeni Americans Merchant Association, a group working to educate business owners on how to adjust to the ban.

“Yes, this causes a lot of uncertainty, tension between clients and merchants. As you mentioned, clients not wanting to use another bag or not having another bag at home,” Alsaidi explained.

Business owners we spoke to who were against the ban did not want to go on camera, though some of them said it’s a financial burden to have to buy more paper bags, and their customers just prefer plastic. Others think it’s too soon to enforce the ban because we are still in a pandemic.

One customer we spoke to isn’t looking forward to it at all.

“It’s going to be hard. We’re all used to having those bags. We’re used to carrying them,” the shopper said.

And yet other shoppers said the benefits will outweigh the negatives.

“It’s going to improve the environment,” one said. “You see the plastic bags on the street. I think if they tell people to not use the plastic, it will improve a lot.”

This New York ban is a small step towards controlling the plastic problem, yet so much remains to be done about the plastic scourge not only in New York but in other states across the country – not to mention the initiatives that must be undertaken across the world.

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  1. Synoia

    The amount of plastic and paper, that enters my home, and garbage cans, is staggering.

    As is the size of my garbage cans, compared to the single, small, garbage can of my youth in the UK.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Plastic bag bans/taxes work. There was grumbling for a few weeks when they brought in a plastic bag tax in Ireland about 12 years ago, but people quickly simply got used to it, and shops found they could make money selling reusable bags, so everyone was happy. I now find it quite jarring when travelling and I’m handed a couple of free bags in a convenience store.

    Although curiously, the one type of shop that ignores the law here are the small Asian groceries – the shop assistants always give me a quick sneaky look as if they are selling contraband and hand me over a free bag if I don’t obviously have a carry bag – I guess that they feel that their customers prefer it that way.

  3. Another Scott

    Here’s what I don’t get about the plastic ban bags: why do they only apply to traditional retailers and not on-line ones? I know that Amazon doesn’t use bags, but purchases from that company create even more packaging, both cardboard and plastic, than getting a comparable purchase in person, yet only the later gets the fee. Imagine how much a single purchase for Amazon would cost if New York implemented a bag-equivalent tax for it’s boxes.

  4. FreeMarketApologist

    I’ll miss the plastic bags as I reuse them as garbage bags, and at some point the stash I’ve squirrelled away will run out and I’ll have to find a new way to hold the garbage and get it from the trash can to the trash chute in the apartment building.

    Most of what gets thrown out is other packaging plastic, and over the years that has shown no signs of abating. I do think the bag ban has only shaved off a snow-cone from the iceberg that is plastic packaging, with the principal impact being on end consumers rather than the manufacturers / distributors. When will there be a larger mandate to rethink that packaging problem?

    1. Reality Bites

      You hit the nail on the head. I don’t mind the plastic bag ban but the average person is inundated with plastic wrapping and plastic products. There has been no push to force manufacturers to reduce usage of plastic. This hinders recycling and more environmentally conscious practices more than anything. I think many people would significantly reduce plastics if they could. But I find even most so-called sustainable shops still have significant use of plastics. Until governments force manufacturers to do more, this is nibbling around the edges.

      1. chuck roast

        Admittedly kind of complex and annoying to do at a supermarket, but I never leave a drugstore with a package or a bag. After the cashier rings up the items, I immediately unpackage and pay for them. Then I pop them in my backpack while the cashier disposes of the trash. If enough customers do this stores may begin lobbying their suppliers for packaging relief.

  5. Rod

    Manufacturers must bear the responsibility for their Plastic Products and directly participate in the Reduction and Collection/Recycling of their Products–not just Consumers.
    Circular Economies of Products must become the Norm by Law now.

  6. Upwithfiat

    I use a reusable “canvas” box-bag; it folds flat to carry under my armpit and is very easy to load since it has a rigid bottom that converts it to a box with canvas handles.

    They cost about $4.00 but are rugged and handy for all sorts* of storage and carrying. Handsome too.

    *such as a car battery or 1/2 of a Subaru engine block if doubled!

  7. Lex

    Trying to get the plastic out of our lives, I bought a package of those ‘Debbie Meyer Green Bags’. That was two years ago and I’m still using them… or I was until Covid, then the cashiers and baggers refused to touch any reusable bags that customers brought in, no matter how clean. This remains store policy; customers can not bring in their own bags.

    Now I load up the cart sans bags, and when asked what kind of bags I’d like by the cashier, I say ‘none’ and explain I have two hard-sided foldable boxes out in the car, so please load my purchases back in the cart. Something about that instruction gives baggers/cashiers pause, so they stare at me, then they start tossing everything back in the cart.

    I don’t buy “naughty things” at the grocery store (not a privacy issue) and I’m standing there with a credit card in my hand. But once I walk away from the cash register, even with a receipt, there’s nothing to distinguish me from someone who just walked in with an empty cart, threw in what they wanted, and decided to walk back out again. So far no one has challenged me to show my receipt.

    So the moral of this tale is there is always the third option — no bag(s). You just have to get used to freaking out the employees a little… they recover.

    1. Carla

      @Lex — Are you able to carry those foldable-side boxes full of groceries from your car into your dwelling? Or when you get home, do you have to put everything into bags to transport the items into your home? Just curious. I think I would have to do the latter…

      1. Lex

        YMMV. I carry the boxes from my car into the house. The boxes themselves are light-weight and I don’t overload them. Unload on the counter, fold, and back into the car. I tried taking the boxes into the store with me but that didn’t fly. Other states, other stores may allow you to walk in with them.

        The upside of having so much of our food wrapped in plastic is that I don’t worry about the weather on the short trip from the store to the car. Most of it is wearing a raincoat.

    2. Prairie Bear

      I have not used this method, but I’ve been thinking of trying it. HyVee, a large upper-midwest regional chain where I shop a lot, still will not allow reusable bags as policy. I was using them regularly for several years. They will give a choice of paper or plastic, although it’s still pretty clear that they would rather use plastic as a default. One time, I used the self-checkout, even though I loathe the very concept, because I had a square milk-carton thing and thought I could just put some of the stuff in there and the rest back in the cart and then pull over in the entry area somewhere to put it in my reusables. But the system didn’t like me not placing them on the specified area of the counter — I guess it checks the weight of the item?. I have a huge stash of the paper ones.

      Aldi stores actually use your method. They put the items back in a cart and there is a packing counter just beyond the checkout lanes where you put your stuff in your own bags or boxes. I very rarely go there but maybe I will start checking them out more.

  8. timotheus

    Some stores started out refusing to allow outside bags to be brought in (Trader Joe’s) but then got over it. This may be a tiny step, but I am delighted to see the end of the massive piles of plastic next to each cashier in the markets. Cloth bags last a long time, and whatever happened to the old string bag?

  9. Tim

    California did this a year ago. Not a big deal and people have adapted for the most part.

    The only thing I don’t like is that they didn’t go back to paper bags, they went to thicker plastic bags that probably meet some bureaucratic definition of reusable, that you can buy for a dollar-ish, that are probably equivalent to 5 disposable bags worth of plastic, and people buy them far more often than you’d think.

  10. Droo

    This is a scam put forth by the Dept. Of Sanitation. Wonder how much the garbage collectors would like to have no plastic bags to hold all that trash out on the streets? The city is getting 3 out of every 5 cents. The paper bags suck, they don’t even have handles in some cases.

    Get ready for a fight.

    1. Yves Smith

      Evidence, please. Or are you too parochial to have heard that other large cities have bans on single use plastic bags, like Sydney and Melbourne?

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