Everything you need to know about New York’s plastic bag ban

Posted On Wed, February 19, 2020 By

Posted On Wed, February 19, 2020 By In City Living, Features, Policy

Image: Michael Kowalczyk via Flickr.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statewide ban on single-use plastic bags, passed by state lawmakers last April, goes into effect on March 1, 2020. Grocery stores and other retail establishments that collect state taxes from customers will no longer be permitted to use the familiar garden-variety plastic bags to contain purchases at checkout counters. Few argue in favor of their use: they aren’t biodegradable, cause major pollution, and kill wildlife. But we’re used to their presence, so our everyday errands may be affected, no matter how minor or worthy the change. What are the exceptions to the no-bag rule? What are our alternatives? What do we hope to accomplish by banishing plastic bags? For those answers and more, read on.

reusable bags, plastic bags, bag ban, recycling, andrew cuomo, policy, wasteImage: Trosmisiek via Wikimedia cc.

The new statewide plastic bag ban will be the second in U.S. history; California banned the bags in 2016. Hawaii has a ban on single-use bags in place throughout the state, but it was instituted by the state’s individual counties.

The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) website outlines the basics of the plastic bag ban. Stores in which plastic bags will no longer be offered include:

  • Clothing stores
  • Convenience stores
  • Drug stores
  • Green carts
  • Grocery stores
  • Hardware stores
  • Liquor stores
  • Office supply stores
  • Pharmacies (though bags for prescription drugs are an exception)
  • Food service establishments located within the above stores

Ideally, store customers will bring their own reusable bags of any kind. If not, in NYC they’ll be required to pay five cents each for paper bags. The per-bag fee was accepted by five New York counties: NYC, Albany, Tompkins, Suffolk and Ulster (customers paying with SNAP or WIC aren’t required to pay the fee anywhere). Revenue from the fees will benefit the state’s Environmental Protection Fund and go toward a fund that pays for reusable bags for consumers.

reusable bags, plastic bags, bag ban, recycling, andrew cuomo, policy, wastePhoto credit: Mr.TinDC via flickr cc

If stores don’t have paper bags available to purchase–there’s currently a shortage, apparently–they can sell reusable bags, defined as hand- or machine-washable bags having at least one strap, which can hold at least 22 pounds and be used a minimum of 125 times for the duration of the bag’s useful lifespan. However, the stores mentioned above are not required to provide any bags at all.

What about exceptions? The following uses are exempt from the plastic bag ban:

  • bags used only to contain or wrap uncooked meat, fish or poultry
  • bags used by a consumer only to package bulk items such as fruits, vegetables, grains, or candy
  • bags used only to contain food sliced or prepared to order
  • bags used only to contain a newspaper for delivery to a subscriber
  • bags sold in bulk to a consumer at the point of sale
  • trash bags
  • food storage bags
  • garment bags
  • bags prepackaged for sale to a customer (as in trash bags or freezer bags)
  • bags provided by a restaurant, tavern, or similar food service establishment to carry out or deliver food
  • bags provided by a pharmacy to carry prescription drugs

What are we hoping to accomplish with this brave new legislation? When the bill was passed banning the bags, Gov. Cuomo said in a statement that “these bags have blighted our environment and clogged our waterways,” and that the plan would “protect our natural resources for future generations of New Yorkers.”

According to Forbes, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 80 percent of the plastic found in oceans began life on land and that by 2050 the world’s oceans will hold more plastic by weight than fish. Plus, it takes 12 million barrels of oil each year to make all the plastic bags we use. In 2014, the United States used an estimated 100 billion single-use plastic shopping bags; the average American family used 1,500 single-use plastic bags annually. And New York, California, and Hawaii combined account for over 60 million Americans, about 18 percent of the population of the United States.

In addition to dire effects on wildlife and the greenhouse emissions caused by their production, the bags put a crimp in recycling efforts. According to Department of Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia (h/t NYC Patch), about 10 billion plastic bags are discarded in NYC annually, making up about 2.5 percent of the city’s waste stream; sanitation workers pick up more than 1,700 tons of them each week. “City residents use billions of single-use carryout bags every year, and they are frequently used for only a few minutes at a time. Plastic bags are particularly troublesome as contaminants in our recycling as they often clog machinery, and we’ve all seen plastic bags stuck in city trees around the city.”

Though many support the ban, some say it doesn’t go far enough. Food delivery bags, for example, are noted in the Brooklyn Eagle as a huge contributor to bag waste by Jeremy Cherson, legislative advocacy manager of water nonprofit group Riverkeeper, who mentions the use of plastic bags by New York City’s restaurant industry and food delivery services. He’s also concerned about the use of paper bags. “We’re trying to address climate change and water scarcity, but we’re shifting to a product that is energy-intensive in both its production and transportation and also water-intensive in terms of growing the trees and then processing them into paper.”

In anticipation of the ban, you can get free reusable bags: The city’s sanitation department has been giving away reusable bags made of 90 percent recycled material even before the new legislation was signed. You can visit the New York Department of Sanitation (NYDS) website, take the Zero Waste Pledge, and get a free reusable bag or cutting board delivered to your door. Even better, you can attend one of the reusable bag giveaway events taking place across the city, and find out more from #BYOBagNY.

The New York Post reports that consumers won’t immediately be trapped in a bag-less wasteland: There will be a transition period of as-yet-undetermined length to ease retailers and consumers into the ban. Though enforcement will follow in the coming months, DEC Chief of Staff Sean Mahar said in an interview this week, “Our goal is to make sure that there’s a smooth transition for consumers and affected retailers with this ban, so we’re going to continue that education effort. But we want to give a period of transition.”

If you still have specific questions about what’s allowed, the DEC’s website outlines it all (or here for manufacturers and retailers). The city’s 311 site also gives a rundown on the ban.

And if you’re looking to buy some reusable bags, here are some great options!

All of these products have been hand-selected by team 6sqft. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these affiliate links. All prices reflect those at the time of publishing. 

10-pack of extra large reusable tote bags with zipper storage bags — $30.99 on Amazon
5-pack of heavy-duty shopping totes, foldable into pouch — $19.95 on Amazon
10-pack of fruit-shaped folding pouch grocery bags — $18.99 on Amazon
2-pack of insulated reusable bags — $18.99 on Amazon
HAY Six Color Reusable Grocery Bag - No. 2 Faded Neutrals Hay six-color reusable grocery bag — $45 at Food 52
Reusable Cotton Flower Tote Reusable cotton flower tote — $48 at Terrain


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