As March 1 came on Sunday, local grocery shoppers were, for the most part, prepared and unbothered by the fact that from now on, they would have to use their own shopping bags, or paper bags, to carry out their purchases from the store.
Sunday was the first day of New York State’s ban on thin plastic bags that merchants have long provided to customers to carry their purchases out of the store.
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 of the bags 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 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.
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.
No retailer that collects sales tax can legally provide these plastic carryout bags any longer, though the state won’t enforce the ban for at least a month.
Merchants who violate the plastic bag ban will get a warning on the first violation and fines of up to $500 for subsequent violations.
While many retail industry officials have noted that while the bag-ban will definitely be a shift, but one that is ultimately doable, and better for the environment, some members of the public, over the last few weeks of the bag ban discussion, have expressed dismay at the new regulations and the fact that they will no longer be given the free plastic bags that have become mainstream in the state.
Getting used to it
However, at the packed Niskayuna Co-op on Sunday, customers were either already fully prepared for the switch, or were chastising themselves for leaving the reusable bags that they already own in their cars, thus being forced to use paper bags.
Sanjeeve Desoyza, of Niskayuna, was using paper bags to carry his groceries out of the store on Sunday simply because he left his reusable bags at home. He does, he said, make a point to use them as often as he can.
Remembering to bring the bags he said, is what he predicts will be the most difficult transition for most customers.
“I think it’ll take a little time to get used to it,” he said. “The concept of using them, I’m totally in favor of.”
Deb Orminski and JoAnn Toth, both from Niskayuna, are frequent customers of the Co-op and echoed Desoyza’s sentiment that remembering to bring their bags with them into the store was really the only thing they struggle with, and would probably be what most other shoppers struggle with as well.
Orminski said it would be convenient if vehicles had a mechanism inside them to remind grocery shoppers to grab their bags prior to going into the store.
“It could say, ‘don’t forget your bags,’ which would prompt me to remember my bags,” she said. However, she added, since that is unlikely to occur any time soon, her plan is to simply keep her bags in the front of her car where she can see them upon arriving at the store, and will help her consistently chip in to the environmental preservation push.
“I’m happy to make the world a better place,” she said.
“It’s just getting yourself into your routine,” Toth said.
At Gabriel’s Supermarket in Schenectady, Marge Johnson, of Scotia, who has been shopping at the local mainstay for decades, said that she had been unaware of the implementation of the bag-ban. However, she said, she wasn’t going to spend time worrying about losing plastic bags.
“I’ve always used paper bags for my groceries. Those plastic bags will rip so easily, I didn’t like to use them to begin with,” she said.
Focus on positive
Part of the smooth transition at the Niskayuna Co-op, said interim general manager Dennis Hanley, has been a concerted effort from the Co-op’s workers to start engaging customers in conversations about the bag ban months ago.
Hanley said that all of the cashiers at the Co-op have been talking to customers about the upcoming shift since January, and on top of that, have been avoiding using the words “bag ban.”
Instead, he said, he has encouraged a focus on the positives that will come from eliminating the use of plastic bags.
“I don’t want this negative. I want the customers to know what this is about,” he said. “The truth is, recycling is good for the environment.”
And customers, Hanley said, have been taking those conversations to heart. The Co-op offers eight different types of reusable bags, from more basic bags that can be purchased in any store for $1, to sturdier, ethically crafted bags or insulated ones.
According to Hanley, the Co-op has had to reorder their bags six times over the last four weeks due to the rapid pace at which customers have been purchasing them.
Hanley has worked through bag transitions in various states 17 times. Change, he said, especially a change of longtime habits, can be difficult. But he added that a little bit of education can go a very long way, as it did at the Co-op, estimating that near 80 percent of the store’s customers are utilizing reusable bags.
“I am so proud of the team members and our customers for making the change happen,” he said.