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Billions of plastic bags will begin to disappear from NY on March 1

plastic bags will begin to disappearHere’s what New Yorkers should expect when the statewide ban begins next month. 

 

Riverkeeper, our partners and the concerned citizens fought long and hard, but the day of the plastic bag ban is soon upon us. Beginning March 1, billions of plastic bags will disappear from the retail landscape and from the environment.

Many stores, such as Wegmans, have instituted the plastic bag ban early along with adding the 5-cent fee on paper bags to encourage a responsible transition to public use of reusable bags. The effort to ban the plastic bag took years of advocacy from the grassroots and faced setbacks and challenges along the way. We now await the first days of the ban, and despite grumbling and hyperbolic warnings of a paper bag and reusable bag shortages, the show will go on! Last we checked, life has gone on uninterrupted in California, despite their plastic bag ban now being in effect for years. We are grateful to Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York State’s legislative leaders for their support of the ban and their resistance to lobbyists trying to delay or significantly weaken the ban.

Recently the Department of Environmental Conservation proposed regulations to aid in the implementation of the plastic bag ban. The DEC received written comments and public testimony from thousands of New Yorkers. Giving credit where credit is due, the DEC rectified many of the problems identified by experts and the public. Those fixes will ensure that there are no big loopholes in which stores are covered and the greatest number of plastic bags are banned. However, DEC missed an opportunity to close a loophole in their regulations that will allow for plastic bags if they are 10 mils (0.01 inches) or thicker. While no technology or manufacturer of a single-use plastic bag of this thickness exists now, experts and advocates find the language open-ended and against a plain reading of the statute which says, “no film plastic.” This could result in the unintended consequence of signaling a market for manufacturers to deliver a 10 mil bag, which is counter to the intent of this law. We urge Governor Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos to fix this loophole as soon as possible.

DEC also addressed public concern over an exemption for bags provided by “restaurants, taverns, or similar food service establishments, as defined in the New York State sanitary code, to carry out or deliver food.” The code’s definition of a food service establishment is, “a place where food is prepared and intended for individual portion service.” DEC clarified this exemption by applying it only to the carryout or delivery of prepared food rather than food generally and recommend the further narrowing of this exemption to not include establishments located within grocery stores, supermarkets, convenience stores or food marts. This change in the final regulations addressed a potential loophole that may have allowed any store that sold prepared foods such as hotdogs or breakfast sandwiches to be exempt from the plastic bag ban for the other items in their stores, such as bottled beverages or potato chips.

We also contended that DEC’s draft regulations proposed too many additional exemptions that were not in the statutory language in addition to granting the agency broad authority to add exemptions to the plastic bag ban. DEC largely rectified this by removing many of the additional exemptions and the proposal for broad authority to exempt items, but did create a new exemption limited to purchasing aquatic animals from a store. Rest at ease. Your goldfish can be sold to you in a plastic bag!

Nevertheless, starting on March 1, New York will go through a remarkable transition away from disposable plastics. It may be challenging at first, but there are plenty of easy strategies to remember to bring your reusable bags when shopping. Together we will stem the tide of plastic pollution. Each May at the Riverkeeper Sweep, volunteers find plastic bags everywhere along the shores of the Hudson and its tributaries. Many bags are shredded by UV degradation and the friction of wave action leaving many microparticles within the water column of the river. With the plastic bag ban soon to go into effect, we hope to see fewer single-use plastic bags at this year’s Sweep and hopefully none in the years to come.

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