The era of the free shopping bag at the checkout is nearing its end at some New York retailers, as they and the state try to steer shoppers toward reusable bags.
The state is banning most plastic carry-out bags effective March 1. Gap, Hannaford, Price Chopper/Market 32, Tops and Wegmans are among the retailers that will start charging customers a nickel for each paper bag that day, though the paper sacks will remain free at many other stores.
The changes are part of a larger effort to reduce environmental damage caused by shopping bags — state officials estimate 24 billion plastic sacks are handed out per year in New York, most of which are used only once and many of which will wind up as non-biodegradable litter that lingers for decades.
While paper sacks have a better image, they also carry a high environmental impact, and are several times more expensive for retailers to supply. The state is allowing paper bags to remain in use but also allowing cities and counties to slap a 5 cent fee on each bag.
So far, Albany County is the only municipality in the Capital Region to adopt this fee, which is more like a tax, since it goes entirely to the county and state. (The per-bag fee retailers have decided to collect in other counties is a surcharge that the stores will retain for themselves.)
The ultimate goal by state officials, environmentalists and retailers alike is to get shoppers to bring their own reusable bags with them when they go shopping, which is easy enough to do but can be hard to remember, until it becomes a habit.
Also, the reusable bags cost at least 50 cents each.
BAN STARTS MARCH 1
Any retailer that charges sales tax is barred from bagging items it sells in single-use thin plastic sacks starting March 1.
Michael Durant, president and CEO of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, said the trade organization’s 800 members in the grocery industry are struggling with the definition of what constitutes a “reusable” alternative.
Is a thick plastic bag reusable and legal, for example, even as a thin plastic bag is illegal? The official definition of “reusable” won’t be published until sometime after Feb. 3, when the public comment period ends.
“The problem is, retailers all fall have been ordering reusable bags for the first and second quarter,” Durant said. “There could be some chaos if enforcement is immediate.”
Tattered plastic bags strewn about as litter are a common sight and an effective argument for the ban. There was not a huge outcry by the retail industry against the ban as it advanced from proposal to law, with a host of exemptions sought by retailers tucked into it.
But some of the details were worrisome. Among them: the option for cities and counties to institute a 5-cent fee on paper bags. This could potentially create a patchwork of rules across the state, Durant said.
The nickel-per-bag fee has been instituted in only a few places so far, including Albany County, where it takes effect March 1. Three cents of each nickel Albany County collects will go to the state environmental protection fund and two cents will go to the county for purposes of promoting use of reusable bags and giving them to people receiving financial assistance from the county. And retailers must waive the fee for customers making purchases through income-based nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC.
A legislative leader in Democratic-led Schenectady County said there is currently no interest by county leaders in instituting a paper bag fee there, though it hasn’t been formally ruled out. An administrator in Republican-led Saratoga County said the idea has been affirmatively rejected by county leaders there. Both men say the fee would constitute a new tax on constituents.
PAPER BAG FEES
Schenectady-based Golub Corp. operates its Price Chopper and Market 32 supermarkets in just three New York counties that plan to require paper bag fees, but it has decided to charge the 5-cent fee in all of its New York stores. It would be impractical to charge the fee in some counties but not others, spokeswoman Mona Golub said.
More important perhaps, free paper bags would create an easy one-use alternative to reusable bags, which the company is trying to steer the shopping public toward. (The company will retain the nickels for itself in counties that don’t seize them; the company says it pays its suppliers more than a nickel each for paper bags.)
Golub offered an update on the classic question (“Paper or plastic?”) that cashiers have posed to customers countless millions of times:
“Paper or plastic? Neither. Really.”
Handled poorly, the plastic bag ban could push customers back 40 years, to when paper bags dominated at checkout lines, Golub said. That would not help the environment, she explained, because paper bags are not a green alternative to plastic. It takes more fuel to create and transport each paper bag, they don’t biodegrade in landfills, and the manufacturing process can create water pollution.
What consumers need to do is to go back 80 years, to the era when people brought their own bags to the store, she added.
Golub said the company is installing displays in the front end of its stores to encourage purchase of reusable bags, which start at 49 cents, and holders that make it easier to load them up with groceries. The next step is getting shoppers to remember to bring their reusable bags.
Golub said she took a while herself to develop the habit, but now keeps bags in her car, and usually remembers to bring them into the store.
“It is a learning curve,” she said. “It’s changing behavior.”
Hannaford is also trying to remind customers of the upcoming change. It is training cashiers and front-end employees to talk to shoppers about the impending end of plastic bags and the need for reusables. It’s adding new designs for the reusables it sells, which start at 50 cents, and posting signs about the changeover.
It will start charging 5 cents per paper bag on March 1 in New York and on April 22 in its home state, Maine, when new rules kick in there.
The switchover is a concerted effort, spokeswoman Ericka Dodge said, and it doesn’t help that each of Hannaford’s five states has different paper/plastic bag regulations from the next. But one statewide law is preferable to dozens of cities creating their own rules, she added. “We definitely welcome consistent statewide legislation.”
The company also welcomes a reduction in the plastic waste stream, she said.
Gabriel’s Supermarkets, a family company with neighborhood markets in Rotterdam and Scotia, is waiting for the new state regulations on reusable bags just as its corporate counterparts are.
“The laws aren’t out yet,” said owner Rudy Gabriele. “We bought a bunch of canvas bags to sell.”
His two stores offer customers a choice between paper and plastic bags at the checkout, and most prefer plastic. So they’ll need to make a transition.
“I don’t think everybody realizes how close it is,” Gabriele said of the March 1 plastic bag ban. “I think it’s good for the environment, but those bags are very useful.”
About 50 percent of shoppers at the Niskayuna Co-op bring their own reusable bags to the store, said board co-President Sarah Bilofsky. The store has increased its selection of reusable bags, increased its outreach to members, and is ready for the plastic ban March 1, she added. It will not add a paper bag fee unless the county mandates it.
A spokeswoman said Shoprite is concerned about the impact of both paper and plastic bags, and supports the move to reusables, but hasn’t reached a final decision on per-bag fees for paper sacks.
Large national retailers such as Walmart and Target have experience with bans in other states, and presumably can adapt their strategies to New York.
Walmart did not return a call for comment for this story. The front end of its Glenville store offered no indication Thursday of any impending change; plastic bags were in full use at every register, and a few small sale racks of reusable bags stood next to only some of the registers.
A Target spokeswoman said the Minnesota-based chain encourages the use of reusable bags by giving a 5-cent discount for each such bag shoppers use. It will offer paper bags as an alternative option, and paper bags will be free unless a county mandates the nickel fee.
Policies at other retailers will likely vary significantly, at least in the beginning. Gap, Tops Friendly Markets and Wegmans are among those that will charge a fee for paper bags, for example. Goodwill Stores and Wegmans are among those accelerating the switchover, and ending their use of plastic bags next week, a month ahead of the deadline.
Mona Golub said New York’s plastic bag ban is new in detail but not concept — the Schenectady-based company has been adapting to bans since 2012, when Great Barrington, Massachusetts, adopted the first rules that affected a Golub Corp. supermarket.
- Numerous other Massachusetts municipalities enacted bag laws, though state legislators are still deliberating possible statewide regulations.
- Connecticut will ban plastic bags in 2021 but created an interim per-bag fee that has greatly deterred their use.
- A single-use plastic ban that will take effect in July in Vermont is called one of the most comprehensive in the nation, and will be accompanied by a 10-cent fee on each paper bag.
- Heavy restrictions on paper and plastic bags were approved by the New Hampshire House this month but may hit a roadblock in the Senate, which has voted down previous bills.
- Within the Golub Corp.’s market zone, Pennsylvania seems to have the loosest stance on single-use bags, with no fees or bans at this point.
The frequently changing six-state patchwork of rules and regulations on bags takes some effort to keep on top of, Golub said, and has had some unforeseen consequences. The most unexpected result? People walking out with their groceries in the hand baskets that are stacked by the door for shoppers — and not returning the baskets. The company has had to order truckloads of replacements for its 133 supermarkets.
But ironically, the first ban that affected a Price Chopper store — in Great Barrington back in 2012 — has been the best-implemented and most-effective from the company’s perspective, Golub said. The company hadn’t been reflexively opposed to the ban when it was proposed, she said, and sat down with town leaders after it was passed to work out the details and have a good rollout.
“We’ve learned a lot through the municipal process,” she said.
On March 1, 2020, any New York retailer that collects sales tax may no longer provide plastic carryout bags. But the new rule falls well short of a full ban on single-use plastic bags. Exempted from the ban is any bag that is:
- Used to contain or wrap uncooked meat, seafood or other unwrapped food items;
- Used by a customer to package material from bulk bins;
- Used for newspaper delivery;
- Used as a garment bag, such as from a dry cleaner;
- Sold in bulk for trash disposal or food storage;
- Provided by a restaurant for carryout or delivered food;
- Provided by a pharmacy for prescription drugs;
- Lacking any reasonable or practical alternative for its function — if state regulators approve.
Durable reusable bags also are exempt from the ban. But the state is still finalizing its definition of durable and reusable; here is the proposed definition:
- Is specifically designed and manufactured to be used repeatedly;
- Is hand- or machine-washable;
- Can carry at least 22 pounds at least 175 feet;
- Has a minimum lifespan of 125 uses;
- Has at least one strap or handle that does not stretch;
- Has a minimum thickness of 10 mils if made of plastic;
- Has a minimum fabric weight of 80 grams per square meter if not made of plastic.