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Impending single-use plastic bag ban gets mixed verdict

Impending single-use plastic bag ban gets mixed verdict

New law takes effect March 1, 2020
Impending single-use plastic bag ban gets mixed verdict
A plastic shopping bag flutters in the wind after one of its handles got caught in this shrub outside a home in Rotterdam.
Photographer: Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer

SCHENECTADY — Sister Linda Neil, CSJ, pumped her fist after learning single-use plastic bags had been banned in New York state. 

Neil pointed at the parking lot of St. Joseph's Place on Albany Street, where tattered plastic bags twirled in the wind. 

The neighboring alleyway was stuffed ankle-deep with countless bags, among other detritus. 

“If you look at the litter up and down Albany Street, I think what you’ll find are mostly plastic bags,” said Neil, who works at the walk-in community center.

Staffers collect what they can and recycle the items at a local supermarket. But the busy corridor running through Hamilton Hill quickly fills up again. 

The neighborhood is home to numerous bodegas that double as delis. 

Ali Alison, owner of Lucky Market on Albany Street, appeared incredulous when told about the new law. 

Customers expect plastic bags, he said, especially when they make large purchases. 

“It’s going to affect business,” he said. “And there’s going to be a lot of arguments.”

TAKES EFFECT NEXT YEAR

The ban was contained in the package of bills approved by the state Legislature on Sunday as part of the $175.5 billion spending plan.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and green groups contend the bags wreak environmental havoc. 

"You drive through urban areas in this state and you see plastic bags hanging from trees like some bizarre Christmas ornaments," Cuomo said.

The legislation takes effect March 1, 2020.

But that doesn’t mean plastic bags will disappear entirely. A number of exemptions have been carved out for produce, bulk foods, deli items, takeout food orders and newspapers.

And while paper bags will still be made available at checkout lines, the law gives counties and cities the authority to decide whether to implement a five cent fee for their usage. 

LAWMAKERS REACT

Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said he “totally” supports the measure.

“These things are very dangerous to the environment,” Steck said. 

State Senator Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, is highly critical, citing the new law as the latest in what he believes is a growing trend in state government to either legalize illicit behavior or try modify legal actions with a new tax. 

Tedisco said the opt-in fee on paper bags shifts the burden from the state and puts the onus on the local governments to raise taxes.

“The state didn’t have the courage to do it themselves,” he said.

Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, said the law will ultimately pass costs onto consumers, and joined Tedisco in predicting an uneven landscape eventually taking shape across the state.

“It’s going to be a management nightmare,” Santabarbara said. “It just creates a patchwork of municipal agreements that really undermine the legislation.” 

A BETTER APPROACH

Price Chopper has approximately 90 locations in New York state spread across at least 29 counties, according to its website.

“Just the different implications in each of the counties is horrifying to think about,” said Mona Golub, vice president of public relations and consumer service.

The supermarket is broadly supportive of a plastic bag ban, Golub said, but advocated for “diminished reliance” on all bags — not just plastic — and an increased focus on reusable bags. 

“Reusable bags are the long-term solution,” Golub said. “We hoped for a statewide law that would level the playing field, but that is not what has happened.”

Golub said shifting consumer habits will be a heavy lift.

Just 10 percent of Price Chopper customers participate in the company’s in-house bag rebate program, she said, which means 90 percent need to change their behavior. 

The chain’s preferred solution would have initially implemented a 10 cent fee on all disposable bags. 

Following one year of consumer education and preparation, plastic bags would have been banned outright, with the fee for paper bags increasing to 20 cents.

The expected result would have been a 90 percent reduction of all single-use checkout bags, said Golub, who noted a recent Suffolk County law mandating a 5 cent fee on both paper and plastic bags that led to an 80 decrease in all single-use bags within six months.

PANTRY CONCERNS

Supermarkets aren’t the only stakeholders who will have to adjust to a major shift in their operating culture.

Business was brisk recently at the Schenectady Inner Community Ministry (SICM) Food Pantry, where volunteers were busy handing out paper bags packed with pantry items reinforced with plastic bags.

SICM's food pantry serves an average of 75 families daily. The number of plastic bags can quickly multiply, especially with larger households, said Ariel White, food pantry program coordinator.

The number could increase to five plastic bags per family — and that’s to say nothing of the individually wrapped baggies stuffed with items like diapers and dog biscuits. 

SICM encourages clients to bring their own reusable bags, said White. But a majority do not. Others fail to return the bags distributed by the pantry.

“We could use reusable bags, but that would require people to bring the bags back,” White said. “For us to buy them every month, it’s not in our budget.”

St. Joseph's Place gives out cloth bags “by the dozen” but also acknowledged the return rate can be low. 

Chris Rush, a long-term pantry volunteer, said a transition is possible, but will require a greater cultural shift, not unlike when the program required residents to show ID in order to receive food.

“It’s going to take a period of time to get people acclimated,” he said.

Neil, the St. Joseph’s volunteer, acknowledged residents of the Hamilton Hill, which is among the city’s poorest, may be upset. 

But she said the ministry's trash-strewn parking lot was also an example of the Broken Windows Theory in which visible signs of disorder lead to an impression that illicit behavior like littering is acceptable. 

“When it’s a mess all the time, people just add to it,” Neil said.

LOCALITIES HAVEN’T DISCUSSED

Funds from paper bag fees will trickle down to the communities to help offset those costs.

“Two cents stays with the local government if they will run a reusable distribution bag program locally,” Cuomo said. “If they won't, that two cents goes to the state also to run a reusable bag program in that area.”

The remaining three cents will support programs in the state's Environmental Protection Fund, which funds infrastructure projects like sewage treatment plants and cleaning up waterfront property.

Steck doesn’t envision an impact on low-income communities.

“WIC and SNAP programs will provide the bags they need,” Steck said. “And there are other programs that will eventually provide bags.”

Both the City of Schenectady and Schenectady County said it’s too early to determine if they will implement the fee.

Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said he was still sorting through the details.

“Over the next day or two, we will see the total package in the budget and look at any direct scenarios that may present opportunities or may create hindrances,” McCarthy said on Tuesday. 

Once the governor formally signs the bill, New York will be the second state to impose a ban, following California, which first imposed a ban 2016.

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