NY poised to sack plastic bags

James Neiss/staff photographerIn this file photo, Kathleene McMorrow of Niagara Falls gets ready to her reusable bags full of groceries into her car in the Wegmans parking lot. Wegmans stopped offering single-use plastic bags to customers in advance of the state's deadline, which is Sunday. 

ALBANY -- It's the talk of the checkout aisles.

Across New York, consumers and supermarket workers are gearing up for Sunday's launch of New York's ban on single-use plastic bags, a move aimed at reducing waste and pollution.

Grocery shoppers will have the option of bringing their own bags to the store, buying reusable bags from the merchants or paying 5 cents for paper bags many stores plan to make available.

The law, approved last year, prohibits the distribution of film plastic bags at all retailers that collect sales tax. A new regulation approved last week by the state Department of Environmental Conservation allows the distribution of thicker plastic bags, defined as at least 10 millimeters in thickness, with the state deciding those now qualify as reusable despite protests from environmental activists.

Exempted from the ban are bags used for such moist products as sliced meats and fruits. Plastic bags for garments are also exempted.

In the market for goldfish? The state regulations will let you bring home aquarium fish in water-filled plastic bags.

State officials are encouraging shoppers to bring their reusable totes with them when they enter supermarkets.

Enforcement actions will eventually be taken against merchants found in violation of the law, officials said. But they acknowledged the initial focus will be on educating both businesses and consumers.

"We're excited to be welcoming this day," Sean Mahar, chief of staff for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said in an interview, "and we're working with all New Yorkers to be ready for it."

He noted the law is expected to result in a sharp reduction in plastic pollution. New Yorkers, he noted, dispose of an estimated 23 billion plastic bags annually, some of which end up in waterways or billowing in the breeze.

"These regulations effectively shut the door on single-use, film plastic bags," Mahar said.

To get the word out on the ban, the state has begun marketing what it calls the "Bring Your Own Bag" pitch, a campaign with its own hashtag, #BYOBagNY. The state also provides a compendium of background information on the ban on this web page: https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/50034.html

But the rollout of the ban could be bumpy, at least initially said Michael Durant, president of the Food Industry Alliance, a trade association for New York supermarkets.

"There is some chaos out there," said Durant, noting the final regulations were released just nine days before the March 1 enactment date for the ban. He pointed out the thicker plastic bags that will be allowed along with paper bags may be challenging to acquire. The compliant plastic bags are typically imported from Asia, where concerns regarding the coronavirus have slowed down shipments of some goods, Durant said.

As other states move forward with similar bans on single-use plastic bags, he said, there is concern that paper bags could be in short supply soon.

"I think this is going to cause some backlash," he said of the projections for shortages in compliant products.

A plastics industry-backed group, the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, is also pointing to predictions of paper bag shortages. Matt Seaholm, the group's director, pointed to a study released by a market research firm, Freedonia Group, warning a shortage of between 738 million to 3.4 billion paper bags is expected in "even in the most optimistic of scenarios."

A ban advocate, Liz Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, predicted the vast majority of consumers will take the changes in stride and appreciate it when they notice less plastic pollution in their communities.

Moran suggested consumers who use plastic for disposing of cat litter will still have plenty of bags available to them, such as those used to package loaves of bread. She also scoffed at the suggestion coronavirus will trigger a shortage of alternative bags as preposterous.

Wegmans, a major supermarket chain in western and central New York, got rid of single-use plastic bags in late January. It provides paper bags for a 5-cent fee.

Price Chopper, which operates supermarkets in several upstate regions, says on its web site that it will begin charging a 5-cent fee for each non-handle paper bag distributed "in keeping with the environmental objectives of the law."

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