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Plastic bag ban draws near, and state begins to educate public

Plastic bag ban draws near, and state begins to educate public

Rules for new measure finalized just days before March 1 rollout of ban
Plastic bag ban draws near, and state begins to educate public
Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, speaks about reusable bags at Crossgates Mall on Friday.
Photographer: John Cropley

GUILDERLAND — A week shy of the start of New York state’s plastic bag ban, business and government leaders gathered at Crossgates Mall on Friday to remind shoppers it’s coming.

Implementation of state rules surrounding the ban has been slow and late, and public education efforts have been sporadic, leading some to worry that rollout of the ban — already a stressful proposition — will be more disruptive than it need be.

They also noted that while attention has been focused on the largest users of plastic bags, such as supermarkets and big-box discount retailers, specialty retailers like the dozens at Crossgates Mall also can’t give out plastic bags starting March 1.

Mall manager Michael Gately said the mall is posting signs at all entrances reminding shoppers to bring their own bags.

Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, a longtime advocate of reusable bags whose district includes the mall, said:

“This is more than grocery stores. All the retailers here, I hope, will be fully cooperating. We’re also trying to avoid any backlash.”

Ted Potrikus, president and CEO of the Retail Council of New York State, said his organization supports the bag ban. “It’s a bit of a lift but we can do it.”

He compared it to the bottle deposit law, which was predicted to be a problem for retailers and turned out to be manageable. 

“It’s doable and it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Potrikus said the ban is good for the environment and good for retailers, who will no longer have to buy bags. However, he said, the Retail Council was particularly supportive because the state ban superseded all the local bans, thus eliminating a patchwork of regulations, each a little different from the next. 

His only criticism? The late arrival of state regulations. 

Fahy echoed Potrikus’ point: Rulemaking has been too slow and public education has been too little, she said: “I think we should have had more time. We needed more time.”

This past Monday, 13 days before the ban takes effect, the state Department of Environmental Conservation finalized the regulations for critical details such as the characteristics of reusable bags. It was very short notice for retailers who had hoped for more time to stock supplies and make preparations.

There have been some consumer education efforts by the state, such as a January video on DEC's YouTube channel that has been viewed 361,000 times.

But it was not until Thursday, 10 days before the ban takes effect, that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced the start of a statewide public outreach and education campaign.

The late start led Fahy to organize Friday’s news conference.

She has reviewed other city and state bans, and found that the shopping public has been unhappy as each one started. “The backlash is usually temporary but it’s pretty fierce,” she said.

A little more notice to the public likely would have helped make the transition smoother and quicker in New York, Fahy said.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

The reason for the ban is straightforward: State officials estimate 23 billion petroleum-based thin plastic bags have been handed out per year in New York state to shoppers who use them for an average of just 12 minutes. Some are recycled and many are dumped in landfills where they’ll sit for centuries. But some wind up as litter as they gradually shred into tatters, cluttering roadsides, trees, fences, sewers and the digestive systems of marine life.

The plastic bags themselves seem to have few defenders outside the bag-manufacturing industry.

Some members of the public reflexively attack a new regulation or restriction in a state that already has so many, others are annoyed at being told they won’t be given free throwaway bags at the checkout line. 

But no one stands up for plastic bags the way dog lovers might advocate for pit bulls when a city talks about banning the breed.

People do appreciate the convenience of throwaway bags, however. 

Impulse shoppers rely on them, as do those who forget to bring their collection of reusable bags to the store, and those who just don’t want to pay for or lug around reusable bags.

Convincing this last group to change their ways is the focus of the 11th-hour education efforts. The state campaign is dubbed Bring Your Own Bag New York — #BYOBagNY.

Throwaway bags still will be available at many cash registers come March 1: The state has not banned paper bags, but it is giving counties the option of imposing a 5-cent per bag fee on paper bags. So far in the Capital Region, only Albany County has opted in to the fee, but implementation is being delayed indefinitely over technical issues.

Some retailers such as Price Chopper and Hannaford are going a step further, imposing a 5-cent fee on each paper bag at the register to get shoppers out of the habit of relying on the retailer to provide one-use bags.

THE RULES

On March 1, any New York retailer that collects sales tax may no longer provide film plastic carryout bags to shoppers. 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;

The goal is to move New Yorkers toward durable reusable bags, which are defined as:

  • Specifically designed and manufactured to be used repeatedly;
  • Machine-washable;
  • Able to carry at least 22 pounds at least 175 feet;
  • Having a minimum lifespan of 125 uses;
  • Having at least one strap or handle that does not stretch;
  • Having a minimum fabric weight of 80 grams per square meter.

The new state rules do allow use of plastic bags that are at least 10 mils thick, which has led environmental activists to criticize it as an incomplete ban. For sake of comparison, a thin-film plastic grocery store bag is 0.5 mil thick. A credit card is about 30 mils thick, a dime about 50 mils thick.

Reusable bags start at 49 cents, and numerous retailers across the Capital Region have racks for sale in the front end of their stores. There are also bargains to be had here and there, particularly with promotional giveaways. Crossgates management, for example, has a large stash in the mall office and is giving them to shoppers while supplies last. Stop & Shop is giving away bags at its 106 New York grocery stores. On a wider scale, the state DEC is handing out 270,000 reusable bags, and is targeting low- to moderate-income communities by giving them away at food banks.

Other retailers are helping consumers buy the bags: Price Chopper/Market 32 shoppers can use their AdvantEdge points to earn free bags, for example. And Target gives a 5-cent discount for each reusable bag used at checkout. At that rate, a 99-cent bag would pay for itself in 20 trips. 

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