As of March 1, single-use plastic bags are officially banned in New York State. The law prohibits retail stores from providing single-use plastic bags, with some exceptions; single-use paper bags are allowed, but localities can impose a 5-cent fee per bag.
To ramp up for official enforcement of the ban, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) distributed more than 270,000 reusable bags, with a focus on low- and moderate-income communities. DEC also bolstered its ongoing outreach to stakeholders and industry associations, including the Food Industry Alliance, the Retail Council and the New York Association of Convenience Stores, and partnered with New York State agencies to distribute reusable bags and elevate the state’s BYOBagNY campaign message.
"Right this minute, plastic bags are hanging in trees, blowing down the streets, filling up our landfills and polluting our lakes, rivers and streams—all hurting our environment," said New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in a statement. "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. We took bold action to protect our environment and ban these environmental blights, and with this campaign, we're going to make sure New Yorkers are ready and have all the facts."
DEC also provided its nine regional offices with BYOBagNY educational materials for use as outreach at public events and is working with the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance to coordinate cross-agency efforts related to clear communication of the law entities required to collect state sales tax.
"New York continues to be a national leader on environmental issues, and the plastic bag ban is the latest in a series of actions Gov. Cuomo has directed to preserve our air, land and waters for future generations,” said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos in a statement. “DEC is proud to be at the forefront of these efforts and will continue to work to develop solutions to combat climate change and protect the environment. We continue to encourage New Yorkers to BYOBagNY and bring their own reusable bags wherever and whenever they shop."
Melissa Iachan, a senior staff attorney in the environmental justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, has advocated and litigated for environmental justice, including the bag ban, in New York City for several years. Last April, she testified in support of the city’s proposed 5-cent fee on single-use paper carryout bags.
An original bag fee bill passed at the city level in 2015, and Iachan came in when the city was grappling with the state pre-empting the city law from going into effect.
“That involved a lot of very careful legal analysis, so I was working very closely with a team of other lawyers as well as the City Council,” she says. “At the city level, it was designed to be a bag fee because evidence had shown that fees were more effective in changing consumer behavior. The state ended up passing a law pre-empting the city's plastic bag fee, saying that any city with 1 million or more residents could not impose a fee on plastic bags. That essentially only targets New York City, and other municipalities and counties did in fact pass the fees."
Iachan explains there was initially pushback from retailers and businesses, which claimed the bag fee and ban would impact low-income New Yorkers negatively because they wouldn’t be able to afford the fee.
“But the truth is that the communities that are the lowest-income communities in New York City really were supportive of this because those are the places where you see the most plastic bags stuck in trees and gutters and blowing all over the sidewalks because that’s where all our garbage trucks go,” she says. “The people in these communities and the grassroots groups in these communities were pretty supportive of this fee.”
Toward the end of the pre-emption battle between the city and the state was when Cuomo announced he was going to put together a task force to think about the different possibilities for plastic bags. About a year ago, Cuomo announced single-use plastic bags would be banned as of March 1, 2020.
New York City acted swiftly and then introduced a paper bag fee on the municipal level as a companion effort to the plastic bag ban.
“I think that was really smart on the part of the city, not only because the idea is to get rid of single-use bags entirely and move to a reusable culture but also from an enforcement perspective because statewide bans are pretty hard to enforce,” explains Iachan.
“In terms of street pollution and litter and quality of life, the garbage infrastructure in our city is really clustered in four low-income communities and communities of color that historically have industrial uses there,” she adds. “They have poor air quality, and more than 75 percent of our garbage infrastructure is in these four communities. As the trucks holding our garbage go to dump at transfer stations, the lightest material in the trucks often blow out, which are plastics and Styrofoam, which we no longer see now.”
The Bodega & Small Business Association, which represents 14,000 delis and bodegas in New York City, challenged the state's single-use plastic bag ban with a lawsuit on February 28, the night before the ban was to take effect, according to the New York Post. Due to the lawsuit, the state agreed to delay enforcement of a ban on plastic bags set to take effect until April 1. The delay aimed to give establishments the chance to get rid of their current stock of plastic bags before facing any sort of monetary penalty.
According to Iachan, while the law itself hasn't been modified, it's possible enforcement of the law isn't priority right now given the COVID-19 pandemic circumstances.
“Enforcement has to be equal across the state and among small and large businesses,” she says. “The policy is designed to change consumer behavior, so more people bring reusable bags with them.”