CAPITOL — Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags Monday, but like most plastic bags, the legislation has some holes in it.
Thicker plastic shopping bags would be exempted, as would compostable bags, bags to wrap raw fish or meat, bags used to purchase loose items such as fruits or grain, bags used to package sliced-to-order goods, newspaper delivery bags, garment bags, restaurant delivery or carry-out bags, bags sold in bulk such as trash bags, and any other bags subsequently exempted by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Aside from that, though, it’s a ban on the ubiquitous thin plastic bags stocked at cash registers around the world. Billions of these two-handled sacks are handed to shoppers each year in New York alone. Very few are recycled. Most wind up in landfills, oceans, roadsides or other places where they are a blight on the landscape or cause outright ecological harm, and for that reason, they have long been a target of environmental activists.
Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates, an Earth-friendly watchdog in Albany, had one word Monday: “Disappointing.”
He noted that when Suffolk County slapped a 5-cent fee on each single-use plastic bag, many retailers simply started giving shoppers 2.25 mil-thick bags stamped with the word “reusable,” which are exempted from Suffolk’s law and would be exempted from Cuomo’s.
The thick bags are made of the same #2 polyethylene and have the same environmental impact as the thin one-use bags the state seeks to ban.
There are already more than a dozen local plastic bag bans or limitations statewide, and others have been proposed but not enacted in places like Saratoga Springs — enough that the Retail Council of New York State welcomes a single regulation for the entire state, said President and CEO Ted Potrikus.
“There are so many different permutations of plastic bag laws ... our members were saying to us, ‘Whatever happens, just make it statewide,’” he said.
The Retail Council hasn’t taken a position on the measure, and it’s not at all certain that it would be bad for retailers, Potrikus said. In other places where bans have been enacted, shoppers have adapted quickly, he said, and retailers with them.
“We’re in the business of doing what our customers tell us to do,” he said.
Cuomo’s office said in a news release that the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force was launched in March 2017 to develop a comprehensive solution to the use and disposal of plastic bags and how best to reduce their environmental impact. It is led by state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and includes representatives from the New York League of Conservation Voters and the Food Industry Alliance.
It is co-chaired by an assemblyman and a senator whose parties control their respective houses of the state Legislature, which will have to approve Cuomo’s proposal for it to become law.
Cuomo’s office said the state also will mount an education and outreach campaign to increase consumer awareness of the harmful impact single-use bags have on the environment, and to promote use of reusable bags.
A major user of thin plastic bags in the Capital Region is the Golub Corporation, in its Price Chopper and Market 32 supermarkets. Spokeswoman Mona Golub said her company supports reduction of single-use plastic bags and increase of environmental awareness but the legislation has some potential shortcomings.
For example, it might push consumers toward single-use paper bags, which in many ways have a greater negative impact on the environment than plastic bags.
Also, the proposed law makes no provision for recipients of the federal SNAP and WIC nutrition subsidies, who may lack the means to buy reusable shopping bags.
Golub said the company has been working on the issue for five years, since it first faced the prospect of a plastic bag ban in Great Barrington, Mass. It has since faced about 40 different regulations in various states and doesn’t expect the proposals to stop coming.
“We are committed to reducing the waste stream,” Golub said. “We believe we need to move forward on the issue.”
That said, the company is not sure Cuomo’s proposal is the right approach.
“We really need to work together to figure out long-term how to make this legislation, that has such noble intent, work,” Golub said. “I think it’s incomplete.”
Industrywide, only about 10 percent of shoppers bother with reusable bags if free single-use plastic bags are available at the checkout, Golub said. That ramps up to 50 to 70 percent if a per-bag fee is charged to shoppers.
This suggests a gradual shift from plastic-for-free to plastic-for-fee to no-plastic is a better approach, she said.
Another Capital Region retailer, Stewart’s Shops, said in a statement that only about 25 percent of its customers are using bags of any type, and they have options other than plastic.
“Stewart’s Shops has a variety of choices for our customers. We offer paper and a reusable bag option in addition to the plastic bags. Due to our thicker mil bag, many customers tell us that they already reuse our plastic bags as compared to the thinner mil bags offered at other retailers.”