Are plastic bags really going away?

Posted 1/15/20

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), “Across New York, residents use 23 billion single-use plastic carryout bags annually. Each bag is only used for …

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Are plastic bags really going away?


According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), “Across New York, residents use 23 billion single-use plastic carryout bags annually. Each bag is only used for an average of 12 minutes. A significant number of these bags make their way into the environment causing litter and damaging wildlife, which can be seen within our waterways, along our streets and in our oceans, rivers and lakes. These bags do not biodegrade and persist for years.”

Last year, the state legislature passed a law banning any establishment that collects sales tax from distributing single-use plastic bags beginning on March 1. But there will be exceptions for bags used for items such as produce, raw meat and prescription drugs. Further, counties and cities have the option to impose a five-cent fee on paper bags. The fee would split; three cents will go to the state’s environmental protection fund, and two cents will be used locally to fund creating a reusable-bag program for low-income residents.

The DEC has yet to adopt final rules on the matter, and is accepting comments on the issue through February 3 at; include “Proposed Part 351” in the subject line.

One thing people have been commenting on is the proposed DEC rule that the law will apply to any film bag up to 10 mils thick. A mil is a measurement that equals one-thousandth of an inch and most film plastic bags are two to four mils thick. Critics are concerned that plastic bag manufacturers are simply going to start making thicker plastic bags to get around the state ban.

Sen. Liz Krueger wrote to the DEC saying, “I am concerned that the inclusion of thickness requirements in the definitions of both ‘film plastic’ and ‘reusable bag’ is not only unnecessary but will result in the distribution of free, thicker single-use carryout bags. Such an outcome, which has occurred in other jurisdictions that have relied on thickness requirements, would leave New York worse off than we were with no ban in place. These definitions should not mention thickness at all.” She also questioned the definition of “exempt bag” which she said was “too open ended.”

The American Progressive Bag Alliance is on the other side of the issue. Spokesman Matt Seaholm said he thinks the New York Law will create “significant market disruption” in the state. He says the DEC’s definition of plastic bags may be interpreted to include other kinds of plastic bags that were manufactured with the intention of being reusable.

Meanwhile, Phil Rozenski, vice president of public affairs for Novolex, which manufactures paper bags and other packaging products, has said there are not enough paper bag manufacturers in the United States to fill the need in New York State if all retail outlets suddenly decide to switch to paper bags.

In response to all this criticism Basil Seggos, the commissioner of the DEC, issued a statement that said, “Gov. Cuomo’s statewide prohibition on plastic bags will help end the blight of plastic bags and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Municipalities are free to put fees on paper bags that some will use as an alternative to plastic and many, including New York City, already have. Communities across the country have instituted similar bans on single-use plastic bags. The data overwhelmingly suggests that they work. I’m confident New Yorkers who aren’t already bringing bags with them are ready and able to make the switch to re-usable bags—and the DEC is ready to help.”

New York State is not alone in battling the ubiquitous plastic bag. As of January 2020, countries around the world have moved to reduce their use, with 74 countries now having introduced or passed plastic bag bans, and another 37 imposing a per-bag fee. Some efforts work better than others.

California voters approved a statewide single-use plastic bag ban in 2016. A Journal of Environmental Economics and Management article in 2019 found that the ban resulted in residents of the Golden State using 40 million less pounds of plastic per year after the ban, but that was partially off-set by an increase of 12 million pounds of plastic trash bags; before the ban, many people re-used single-use plastic bags as trash bags.

We should know before long whether New York’s ban with an optional fee for paper bags is effective or not, but most of us are already aware of the issue with plastic bags. We’ve seen the pictures of dead whales with their stomachs full of plastic bags, and we’ve heard that plastic bags kill up to 100,000 marine animals per year. We should be willing to make the minor adjustment to use paper or reusable bags for our groceries.


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