Starting March 1, if you shop without a bag in the State of New York, you’ll have a lot on your hands: that’s when the statewide ban on single-use plastic bags begins. Feel free to draw upon your stockpile of plastic bags going forward, but establishments that collect New York State sales tax – ie, grocery stores and retail shops – can no longer pack your purchases into the membrane-thin plastic bag of yore.
Why a Ban?
According to the NYC Department of Sanitation, in New York City alone, residents use more than 10 billion single-use carryout bags every year, which racks up more than $12 million annually in disposal costs.
“Plastic bags are used on average just 12 minutes before being trashed, yet last hundreds or thousands of years in a landfill,” says Julie Raskin, executive director of the Foundation for New York’s Strongest, which engages citizens and businesses in waste management practices.
Given that the city is lagging behind its recycling goals (as reported by The New York Times on January 29), the NYS Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse and Recycling Act is also a response to advocates concerned with the environmental health of our planet. It doesn’t just pack landfills, but ends up in waterways and oceans, where in original form or even broken down into microplastic, it harms and kills wildlife, which in turn, disrupts ecosystems.
PBS NewsHour has devoted an hour-long special to the science and impact of plastics in “The Plastic Problem.” Chockfull of stats and figures that make it easy to understand the undesired impacts of this practical product, the special also addresses the unknowns, such as the effect of ingesting plastic – on fish, and the humans that eat them.
See full PBS NewsHour special, The Plastic Problem, here.
To get you up to speed on how this new law can affect your life now, we are sharing information and tips on the plastic ban, including those from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Exceptions to Plastic Bag Ban
New York State is not banning the purchase of bags like garbage can liners, sandwich bags, and whatever you might want to pick up after a dog. The State act that goes into effect March 1 prohibits the stores that collect New York State sales tax from packing items “to-go” in a single-use plastic bag. Your corner deli can sell you boxes of garbage bags and freezer bags, but can’t give you a plastic bag to carry them away in.
Here are notable exceptions:
In places you purchase food, bags can be used for items from bulk containers, for raw meat and seafood and other unwrapped food (like deli counter cold-cuts), flowers or plants.Restaurants and eateries that offer take-out can still pack meals in plastic bags, whether for delivery or pick-up.Laundry services and dry cleaners can continue using plastic to protect garments.Newspapers may still be wrapped in plastic to protect them from outdoor elements.Bags provided by pharmacies to carry prescription drugs are still permissible.
How to Carry Your Stuff
You can’t get around the ban by coughing up money for single-use plastic bags, nor are retail stores obligated to provide any bag at all.
Retail stores can choose to offer paper bags and are authorized to charge .05 for each if they choose (no charge for purchases made through SNAP or WIC benefits programs). The days of cashiers at Whole Foods unnecessarily doubling every paper bag are numbered. You can buy as many as you like.
The statute eliminating single-use plastic bags also defines what constitutes a durable, reusable plastic bag. Supermarkets like Key Foods are already selling theirs for .99 (decorated with their rebranded “Urban Meadows” logo).
In New York City, the Sanitation department is distributing free reusable bags at its events. The state hopes consumers remember to keep their own reusable cloth or synthetic fiber bags handy for both planned and unexpected shopping trips. (They’ve even developed social graphics to promote awareness).
Years into the future, fashion bloggers will reference the law that brought fabric and nylon tote bags back in style, providing countless conferences, nonprofits and designers more opportunity to make their names known as shoppers go about their business.
Where Can I Recycle Plastic Bags?
Stores covered under the new NYS Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse and Recycling Act will still be required to collect plastic bags and other film plastics from consumers for recycling. (Film plastics include items such as bread bags and plastic wraps that come over cases of water, paper towels and such items). These kinds of plastics can not be placed in residential recycling. See the NYC Department of Sanitation site for how and what to recycle at home in New York City, and elsewhere, look up your county or town rules.
In New Jersey, Governor Murphy signed a law on January 21 that establishes a Recycling Market Development Council, which is to address how best to recycle, particularly since China stopped accepting materials from the U.S. two years ago in 2018. NJ Spotlight reported on New Jersey’s plans for the Recycling Market Development Council and related issues in November.
Where Else is Single-Use Plastic Banned?
Plastic bags are not just a problem for areas where garbage inevitably makes its way to waterways and coastlines, as in the Tri-State area. The United Nations has documented single-use plastics as one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges.
New York is one of nine states to ban plastic bags; the most recent to vote positively on a ban is Washington. The National Conference of State Legislatures has detailed the timeline and types of plastic bag legislation in various states.
In New Jersey, individual towns have enacted and banned single-use plastics and polystyrene cups and containers (see NJTV report).
China announced in January that plastic bags would be banned in all of its major cities by the end of 2020 and banned in all cities and towns in 2022. It will also phase out plastic utensils and packages.
The European Union’s ban on single-use plastic straws, cutlery and other items will go into effect in 2021.
Explaining Recycling to Kids
If you know kids who are curious about where your household items go, Sesame Street has a segment that visits a recycling plant.
Murray and Ovejita are learning what happens to plastic after it gets recycled! Things that are recycled can even be made into something new.
Short Film: Plastic Bag
In a short film by Ramin Bahrani, a plastic bag goes on a hero’s journey, from grocery store to the ocean’s plastic vortex. Award-winning director Werner Herzog gives the philosophical bag its voice.
Struggling with its immortality, a discarded plastic bag ventures through the environmentally barren remains of America as it searches for its maker.