ALBANY — State officials say they are simply trying to fine-tune a ban on single-plastic bags that will bring sweeping changes to the grocery line checkout experience when the new law takes effect March 1.
But various stakeholders are raising questions about the draft regulations that the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has advanced as the agency tees up a legally required public hearing on the rules.
That forum, slated for Jan. 27 at DEC headquarters at 625 Broadway, Albany, is expected to draw advocates for supermarket chains, other retailers, plastic bag manufacturers and environmental causes..
The concerns raised in response to the draft regulations are as different as those with a stake in the final outcome of the rules.
New York is just the second state in the nation to adopt a ban on single use plastic bags, following California's lead. But scores of communities across the nation have imposed local bans, and more than 10 local governments in New York have enacted their own prohibitions on plastic bags.
Michael Durant, president of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, the lobby group for supermarkets, told CNHI the alliance hopes the hearing clarifies whether sturdy reusable bags, constructed with plastic material and handed out by some shops now, will be viewed as compliant when final rules are adopted.
"This law raised a lot of concerns over what is or would not be an allowable, reusable plastic bag," Durant said.
Based on the wording in the regulations, Durant said his group believes bags meeting the strength and durability objectives of the rule will assist the state in achieving the goal of waste reduction.
But Liz Moran, environmental policy director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, and Peter Iwanowicz, director of Environmental Advocates, both non-profit advocacy groups, criticized the proposed regulation, contending it would thwart the objectives of nudging consumers to find non-plastic totes for getting their groceries from stores to homes.
"This proposal would allow thicker plastic bags to be classified as reusable bags, which has become an issue in Suffolk County and in California," Moran said. "The bottom line is that the production of plastic must stop if we are going to fight climate change. DEC's proposal goes against the intent of the law."
Said Iwanowicz: "All of the stakeholders I have talked to on this want clarity from DEC and I think what DEC did here adds more confusion. The law is pretty clear. No plastic. No means no."
Also weighing in on the regulation is the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group that was unsuccessful in tripping up the legislation in both New York and California. The alliance's director, Matt Seaholm, said the New York plan would "increase costs for shoppers at every store in the state, while missing the mark on any sustainability and environmental benefits."
"We hope that during the forthcoming public comment period, state officials will work with all affected stakeholders to achieve a compromise that will actually benefit the people of New York," Seaholm said.
DEC responded to questions posed by CNHI with a statement from state Environmental Commissioner Basil Seggos.
Noting that the state is trying to stop the billions of plastic bags that end up in New York landfills, Seggos said, "Those who attack the state's practical solution without offering up an alternative or recognizing the environmental cost of failing to do so fall short of the mark."
While the new state law supercedes the bans enacted by some local governments, Seggos noted municipalities remain free to put fees on paper bags to discourage their use. "I'm confident New Yorkers who aren't already bringing bags with them are ready and ale to make the switch to reusable bags — and DEC is ready to help."
The draft regulation notes that bags exempted from the ban include those used for carry-out meals from restaurants, prepackaged foods for bulk sale,live fish and insects, newspaper delivery, prescription drugs, small hardware items such as nuts and screws and those sold to contain trash.
Mona Golub, vice president for communications at Price Chopper, a major upstate grocery chain, said she agrees with some of the concerns registered by environmental groups.
"The law is supposed to be about sustainability," said Golub, questioning the exception for plastic bags for takeout food from restaurants.
"If a thin film bag doesn't work for a department store, or a grocery store or a mom and pop, it shouldn't work for a takeout restaurant," Golub said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org