What's the Deal with Plastic Bag Bans?

Can you remember a time before plastic bags were ubiquitous? 

By Alexandra LaMonte, NYSAC Research Analyst 

In the 1960s, plastics were just becoming popular.[1] In fact, grocery stores didn't begin to hand out plastic shopping bags until the late 1970s.[2] Fast forward thirty years, and Americans now use 100 billion (with a b) plastic shopping bags each year.

In New York, we consume nearly a quarter of all plastic bags distributed in the United States, roughly 23 billion a year.[3] This means that any action New York State decides to take (or not take) related to plastic bags can have a big impact on overall bag consumption in the United States. In this context, it's worth asking: What's the problem with plastic bags, and what is being done about it?

The Problem with Plastic Bags
Costumers love plastic bags because they are durable and reusable, but our environment pays a price for our plastic bag use. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 80% of plastic pollution in the ocean originates as land-based trash, which includes plastic bags.[4] Experts project that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the world's oceans than fish.[5]

If you've ever seen a photo of a baby turtle trapped in a plastic ring, then you have an idea of the threat this poses to wildlife. But did you know that plastic also makes its way into our food and drinking water? Plastics in the environment break down into microplastics, which can absorb toxins and leach chemicals. The animals we eat ingest these chemicals and toxins before they end up on our plates. This is not to mention the unsightly plastic bag litter that blows through our streets and parks and the costly operational issues these bags cause for our local municipal recovery facilities when they become tangled or jammed in the processing equipment.

However, this doesn't mean everyone is opposed to plastic bags. Grocery stores report that customers prefer plastic to paper, and social advocacy groups worry about the impact a plastic bag ban or fee could have on low-income individuals who rely on these bags to transport their goods.

Who's Banning the Bag?
The first plastic bag regulation you probably remember hearing about is China's 2008 plastic bag ban. On its five-year anniversary, Chinese officials credited the ban with keeping tens of billions of bags out of landfills and saving the country the equivalent of six million tons of oil, as plastic bags are made from fossil fuel derivatives.[6]

Plastic bag regulations have also caught on in the United States. Notably, in 2016, California instituted a statewide plastic bag ban and a fee on allowable alternatives after several local governments across the state passed their own local bag ordinances.[7] Today, Chicago, IL, Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX are among the cities that have banned plastic bags outright, and other cities like the District of Columbia, Boulder, CO, and Portland, ME are among those that have imposed a fee.[8] Bans are the more popular option: Seventy-five percent of the reduction measures in the United States are bans.[9]

New York State has taken notice. Here, bans on single-use plastic bags exist in ten municipalities, with one of the ten also having a fee.[10] Suffolk County is the first county in the state to legislate on plastic bags, imposing a five-cent fee on plastic and paper that went into effect on January 1, 2018.[11] In recent days, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz[12] and a committee of the Tompkins County Legislature[13] have called for a statewide ban. New York City tried to impose its own five-cent fee on plastic bags, but the Governor signed a bill in February 2017 that killed the law just a day before the fee was supposed to go into effect.[14] When he did this, Cuomo promised to form “a statewide task force to develop a uniform state plan for addressing the plastic bag problem.”[15]

What Action Might New York State Take?
In February 2017, Governor Cuomo convened the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force to develop a report and propose legislation to address the detrimental impact of plastic bags on the state's environment. The Task Force was led by state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos, along with co-chairs Senator Thomas O'Mara and Assemblyman Steve Englebright. Members also included Stephen Acquario, Executive Director of New York State Association of Counties; Marcia Bystryn, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters; and Michael Rosen, President and CEO of the Food Industry Alliance. Their report outlines eight courses of action:
  1. Strengthen and enforce the existing New York State Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse and Recycling Act (i.e. promote plastic bag recycling through increased education, enforcement, and reporting requirements)
  2. Make manufacturers responsible for the recycling of single-use plastic bags (i.e. require the bag manufacturers to fund and implement a program for collecting and recycling single-use plastic bags)
  3. Impose a fee on single-use plastic bags
  4. Impose a fee per transaction for single-use bags (i.e. customers pay a ten-cent fee for bags whether they receive one bag or ten bags)
  5. Impose fee on single-use plastic and paper bags
  6. Ban single-use plastic bags
  7. Ban plastic bags and impose a fee on the allowable alternatives (e.g. paper)
  8. Continue existing policies (i.e. take no new action and keep the existing New York State Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse and Recycling Act as is)
The sheer number of options included in the report hints at the difficulty legislators will have in finding a policy solution they can agree upon. Other important considerations included in the report are the need for an educational campaign, statewide consistency, an assessment of litter and baseline plastic bag use, and continued recycling of bags. Legislators will also have to consider the disposition of fees and whether to include exemptions, a phase-in period, and/or a sunset provision in any enacted legislation.[16]

What to Watch
As was in the case in California, action by local governments has prompted the State to address the issues with plastic bags. Assemblymember DenDekker introduced a bill (A3417) that would prohibit grocery stores from providing plastic carryout bags and require grocery stores to provide recyclable paper bags at no charge to customers. Assemblymember Jaffee has a bill (A3800-A) that would encourage the use of reusable shopping bags at stores that operate an at-store recycling program. In the Senate, Senator Alcantara introduced a bill (S4330, same as A6239 Sepulveda) that would provide an instant tax rebate of three cents per reusable bag furnished to replace a plastic carryout bag by a customer of a retail store. Meanwhile, Senator Avella has a bill (S4656) that would challenge all New York State colleges and universities to assist in finding a solution to the ongoing issue of plastic bag pollution in New York State. These are just a few pieces of legislation that have already been introduced on this topic.

The possibilities for action (or inaction) are endless. As more governments across the United States and the world begin to legislate on plastic bags, this is an issue county leaders will want to watch.