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New York's Plastic Bag Ban Takes Effect March 1

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation / YouTube
A screenshot from the DEC video reminding New Yorkers about the upcoming plastic bag ban.

On March 1 grocery stores and other retail outlets will no longer be providing shoppers with single-use plastic bags. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration is making a last minute push to get the word out on the plastic bag ban.

The Department of Environmental Conservation has stepped up its efforts in recent days to help New Yorkers understand the new rules, running ads on social media and running videos on its website and on its YouTube channel.

The agency is also distributing 270,000 reusable bags to low- and moderate-income communities.

Governor Cuomo says New Yorkers benefit from the law.

“It’s no doubt that this is smart. You see these bags all over the place,” said Cuomo, who said the bags hang in trees like “bizarre Christmas ornaments.”

“I’ve been 30 miles out on the ocean and you see garbage floating, and plastic bags floating,” Cuomo continued. “It’s terrible.”

Paper bags will still be available, though individual counties have the option to charge a 5 cent fee for the bags, and several counties have decided to opt in. A number of grocery chains have also decided to charge a fee for the bags.

DEC officials say the goal of the law is not to just switch to paper bags, but for shoppers to bring in their own reusable bags.

Some kinds of single use plastic bags will still be legal, including takeout bags at restaurants and delis, and bags used for meat, fish and produce.

The environmental agency is giving stores and shoppers some time to adjust to the new law, saying it will be several months before they start imposing fines on businesses who violate the rules.

Backers of the bag ban, including Judith Enck, who runs Beyond Plastics at Bennington College, say they worry that Cuomo’s environmental agency may have inadvertently created a loophole for thicker kinds of single use plastic bags to be manufactured and sold.

“It was most unfortunate,” Enck said. “Why even open the door to that?”

The DEC regulations say bags thicker than 10 mils will still be permissible. The agency says that thickness is only for industrial uses like home construction, and not for shopping bags. 

Enck, a former EPA administrator, says overall though, the change will be a positive one and will cut down on the amount of plastic waste.

Polls show the public is in favor of bringing their own bags to shop.

The plastics industry warns, though, that the change might not go smoothly. They predict a paper bag shortage if enough people don’t bring reusable bags to the store. And they say it might be harder to import the plastic-based reusable bags, if trade disruptions with China and other Asian manufacturing countries continue, due to the coronavirus. 

“They’re going to have a mess on their hands when this really goes into effect,” said Matt Seaholm, with the American Recyclable Bag Alliance, which is part of the Plastics Industry Association.

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.