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Supporters And Opponents Of New York Plastic Bag Ban Find Fault With Proposed Regulations

Plastic bags tangled in the branches of a tree in New York City's East Village in March.

Beginning in March, New York will ban single-use plastic bags at grocery stores and other retail outlets, which supporters believe will cut down on residents’ use of an estimated 23 billion plastic bags each year. State regulators released new rules to enforce the changes, and groups on both sides of the issue say those rules are flawed.

The law seems simple. After March 1, grocery stores, clothing shops, big box retailers and others in the state will no longer offer single-use plastic bags to shoppers. Some may offer paper bags or boxes. Others will require customers to bring their own reusable bags.

But both representatives of the plastic bag industry and environmentalists say there are some logistical issues that need to be resolved. Even though they are on opposite sides of the argument, they both agree that the new proposed regulations quietly released by the state Department of Environmental Conservation over the Thanksgiving holiday are flawed, and may overstep the intent of the original legislation.

Matt Seaholm is with the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents the U.S. plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry. He believes the new regulations would have unintended consequences.

“They went much, much further than that,” said Seaholm. “And are really heading down a road that will create significant market disruption in the state of New York.”  

Seaholm says the way the DEC has defined reusable bags might complicate the sale of what’s known as woven and unwoven polypropylene bags, which are also made of plastic and are commonly sold as reusable bags in grocery and other retail stores. He says if they are allowed under the rules, retailers will need to import an estimated one billion bags, which are manufactured from Asia, once the ban takes effect. And he says the paper industry is not currently equipped to supply enough bags if stores decide instead to give out paper bags.

“They’re talking about how they don’t have the capacity, nor does anybody in the paper industry to manufacture the necessary paper bags that will have to be used in New York to take over for plastic,” Seaholm said.

Seaholm says the makers of single-use bags believe that they bags are actually better for the environment than reusable plastic and paper bags. He says 78% get reused, and 10 to 12% are recycled.

But he says he understands why the single-use bags have come to symbolize the overuse of plastics in our society, even though they make up 1% of all plastic products.  

“When they end up blowing in a tree, they sit there for a while,” Seaholm said. “We get it.”

Liz Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, disagrees with that assessment. She believes banning single-use plastic bags will be a significant step toward cutting down plastics in the environment. And Moran says reusable bags, even though they are also made of plastic, have less impact on the environment. But she also thinks the proposed state regulations are misguided.

“These regulations could really muddy the water,” Moran said.

Moran says the DEC defines single-use plastic bags as ones that are made out of what’s known as film plastic, and are less than 10 millimeters thick. One mil equals one-thousandth of an inch, or 0.001 inch. She says that number is arbitrary and worries that it could create a loophole for thicker types of plastic bags to be sold. While the plastics industry currently manufactures single use plastic bags that are around 4 mils thick, they might in the future decide to make the heftier bags to sell to stores for single use.

“We really don’t think there should be a thickness provision at all,” Moran said.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos in a statement, defended the proposed rules, and took a shot at its critics.

“Those who attack the state’s practical solution without offering up an alternative or recognizing the environmental cost of failing to do so fall short of the mark,” Seggos said.

The commissioner encouraged those who disagree to make their views known, as part of the public comment period which endsFebruary 3. There will be a public hearing on January 27 in Albany. Seggos says the DEC “will make any changes necessary based on the comments received.”

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.