Plastic bag ban among Cuomo proposals

Critics support the idea, but say paper bags need to be covered, too
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at the Sustainable Development Capital Region Conference that was held at Proctors in 2016.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks at the Sustainable Development Capital Region Conference that was held at Proctors in 2016.

CAPITOL — With New Yorkers being given an estimated 23 billion plastic bags a year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo says a ban on the bags would combat litter and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A statewide plastic bag ban, along with an expansion of the state’s bottle bill that will bring more drink containers under the state’s bottle deposit law, will be among the plans Cuomo will unveil when he gives his State of the State and 2019 state budget presentation Tuesday afternoon in Albany.

Cuomo said banning the bags would reduce litter and greenhouse gas emissions associated with their manufacture from petroleum products, but many critics say the governor’s proposal doesn’t go far enough.

“These bold actions to ban plastic bags and promote recycling will reduce litter in our communities, protect our water and create a cleaner and greener New York for all,” Cuomo said in announcing his proposals on Sunday.

As he did more extensively last year, Cuomo has been releasing some of his proposals before the high-profile speech that will outline his full agenda for the year.

Cuomo proposed a plastic bag ban last year, based on the 2017 recommendations of a state task force, but it didn’t pass. It is believed to have a better chance of passing this year with Democrats having taken control of the state Senate, which under Republican control often blocked such measures.

This time, it will be included in Cuomo’s executive budget proposal, increasing its chances of adoption.

Some 16 communities — none of them in the Capital Region — have enacted plastic bag bans on their own. In 2013 there was a citizen petition calling for the Saratoga Springs City Council to take action, but nothing came of it.

On Monday, the chairman of Sustainable Saratoga said a plastic ban would be a great first step.

“But the research of our zero waste committee says that unless you put a fee on paper bags, you won’t see a significant change in people’s behavior when they go to the store,” Art Holmberg said.

Cuomo’s idea has opponents who think plastic bags offer convenience, but many other critics who say it doesn’t go far enough to reduce waste.

Stewart’s Shops, the Malta-based convenience store chain that commonly gives plastic bags when customers purchase multiple items, said it continues to stand by the convenience such bags offer its customers.

“Our walking customers rely on our plastic bags to carry their groceries and purchases,” Stewart’s spokeswoman Erica Komoroske said. “Our plastic bags are different than the typical plastic bag; we offer a thicker bag than can be reused multiple times and recycled when no longer needed.”

She said all the company’s stores also offer re-usable tote-type bags for sale, and customers can also ask for paper bags.

The Food Industry Alliance said it supports the goal of reducing waste, but said paper bags also need to be addressed.

“While we strongly oppose this proposal from Governor Cuomo, we look forward to working with the administration on a more sustainable solution that benefits both our industry and environment,” said a statement from the alliance, which represents food retailers across the state.

The Rotterdam-headquartered Price Chopper/Market 32 supermarket chain supports the concept of eliminating single-use plastic bags, but feels the legislation should also discourage single-use paper bags and provide an incentive for reusable heavy-duty plastic bags, said spokeswoman Mona Golub.

“I think this is step in the right direction, but it is incomplete,” Golub said.

Some environmental groups said the state needs to go further, putting a fee on paper bags to encourage people to switch to reusable bags.

“While details are still needed, the governor’s announcement to ban plastic bags and expand the Bottle Bill are important first steps for New York state to address the issue of plastic waste,” NYPIRG Environmental Policy Director Liz Moran said. “No one wants to see plastic bags decorating our trees or ingest micro plastic in their water.”

Cuomo said the state Department of Environmental Conservation will work with community leaders and others to try to make sure a ban doesn’t have a disproportionate impact on low- and moderate-income communities through the distribution of reusable bags.

Separately, Cuomo’s bottle bill proposal would expand the deposit now required on soda and water bottles to cover nearly all non-alcohol bottles, including sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit and vegetable drinks and ready-to-drink teas and coffees — all drinks that either didn’t exist or had much smaller markets when the bottle bill was written in 1982. Exemptions would remain for dairy milk and milk substitutes, infant formula, syrups, medicines and dietary supplements.

The governor said he will also ask DEC to work with industry and retailers to study how the law could be expanded to cover wine and liquor bottles.

The Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Riverkeeper and Natural Resources Defense Council said the idea is good, but runs the risk of undermining community recycling programs.

“The governor’s proposal is well-intended and deserves serious consideration,” they said in a statement. “We understand the benefits, but want to be sure this approach will not harm municipal recycling programs around the state.”

Many more proposals are expected to emerge from Cuomo’s budget presentation, as he has already outlined more than a dozen ideas generally viewed as progressive.

Cuomo will be delivering his State of the State and budget address at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Empire State Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Albany.

On Saturday, Cuomo announced that he will also propose raising the minimum purchase age for cigarettes, other tobacco products and e-cigarettes from age 18 to age 21 — moves he said would reduce the impacts of teen smoking.

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

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