New Yorkers use an estimated 23 billion plastic bags a year, and environmentalists are hoping the state’s plastic bag ban, which goes into effect March 1, will curb that number (and the subsequent majority of those plastic bags that end up in landfill). But that ban doesn’t mean that beginning in March, New Yorkers will stop encountering plastic bags all together. In fact, they’ll probably still see a lot of plastic bags, if they order takeout, fill a prescription, get a newspaper delivered, pick up dry cleaning, or buy bulk items from fruit to grains.
“The focus of this legislation is on single-use plastic carry-out bags at point of purchase, so there are still exempt bags,” says Eric Goldstein, senior attorney and New York City environment director at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The state’s plastic bag ban comes with what may seem like a long list of exceptions, and this may frustrate activists who want more comprehensive action against our single-use plastic problem. But, as far as legislature goes toward banning plastic bags, these sorts of exemptions are par for the course.
New York will be the third state to ban plastic bags, behind Hawaii and California, though many cities and other smaller municipalities have passed their own similar laws, and more states have followed. California was the first to do a statewide ban with its 2014 legislation, but bags made of plastic film are still a common sight, even at checkout lines. There’s an exception to the California law that allows stores to sell thicker plastic bags, deemed “reusable,” for 10¢.
Still, the ban has made a big difference, says Mark Murray, lead director of nonprofit Californians Against Waste. “There are still plastic carry-out bags in the fast-food sector, and at nonfood retailers, and grocery stores still have plastic produce bags, and sell certified ‘reusable’ bags from recycled plastic,” he says in an email, “but the volume of these other bags represents less than one-tenth of the volume previously generated by single-use plastic grocery bags.”
It may be discouraging, and confusing, to still see plastic bags when there’s a ban, and Goldstein says the NRDC agrees that we need to do more to stop our reliance on single-use plastics. Switching completely to paper isn’t the answer, either. A recent ad in The New York Post, paid for by two supermarket chains, slammed the state’s bag ban, saying “billions of trees will die. So much for the environment.”
Many grocery store owners have long protested plastic bag bans, but this ad isn’t entirely incorrect. “A simple switch from single-use plastic to single-use paper would create its own set of environmental problems,” Goldstein says. “The manufacture of paper generates air pollution, water pollution, and consumes significant amounts of energy.” New York City, Suffolk County, and Tompkins County have added a 5¢ fee per paper bag (those who use SNAP or WIC are exempt) in addition to the statewide plastic bag ban, in an attempt to prevent that one-for-one swap.
But the fact that paper bags (or compostable items) come with their own environmental impact doesn’t mean we need to keep single-use plastic bags around. “The solution is to carry reusable bags,” Goldstein says. “We know that there are always startup challenges to programs like this,” he adds of the ban. “But the experience around the country and the world is that over time, shoppers adjust, habits change, and litter and pollution are reduced.” A portion of that 5¢ fee for paper bags will go toward purchasing reusable bags for low- and fixed-income families; the rest will go to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.
And in New York, at least, those thicker plastic bags that evade the ban in California won’t count as “reusable.” In California, plastic bags that are 2.5-mils (a thousandth of an inch) thick are deemed reusable, but the New York legislature defines reusable bags as either made of cloth or plastic at least 10-mils thick, meaning all thinner plastic bags are banned. The state says plastic bags of this thickness are not currently manufactured and could not be manufactured on current machinery (or at a low enough cost), though Goldstein says the NRDC will keep an eye on this. “We are cautious and we would never underestimate the ability of the plastics industry to try to circumvent a statute like this,” he says, “but people will be watching . . . and there will be a very vocal outcry and most likely a legislative response if they try to do so.”
There are, of course, still plenty of other sources of single-use plastic: water bottles, utensils, the plastic bag that holds your loaf of bread. New York’s law isn’t a blanket ban on single-use plastic, but even though New Yorkers will still see a lot of plastic once the ban is in place (grocery stores may also be allowed to use up any existing single-use bag stock past March 1—the state government didn’t reply to our queries on that topic), it’s a step in the right direction.
“This is one of the first, but it certainly won’t be the last effort made in New York to cut back on single-use plastics,” Goldstein says. As the state makes the transition away from single-use plastic film bags, he doesn’t want anyone to get discouraged, either. “As with just about every environmental issue, if people were thinking about the long term, we’d be in much better shape, so it’s not what happens on March 1 or March 2 or the first week as shoppers and retailers make the transition to a new law, but how we carry our groceries, how we live our lives more sustainably in the months and years down the road.”