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Cuomo signs plastic bag ban

Governor Cuomo, in a ceremonial bill signing on Monday, Earth Day.
Governor Cuomo's office
Governor Cuomo, in a ceremonial bill signing on Monday, Earth Day.

As Earth Day was celebrated Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that bans single-use plastic bags in grocery stores and other retail shops in New York state.

Cuomo, crumpling a plastic bag in his hand for effect, said the bags “look harmless enough” but are actually dangerous to the environment -- and New Yorkers use 23 billion of them a year. They end up in landfills and on the street. Cuomo, an avid deep-sea fisherman, said they also clog up the waterways.

“I have been fishing 40 miles out to sea and found plastic bags. They are everywhere,” Cuomo said. “By 2050, there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish.”

Cuomo said he knows that change is hard, but he said it’s a “minor inconvenience” to bring reusable bags with you to the store.

“Yes, like you have to remember to go to the store, and you have to remember to bring your keys, and you have to remember to find a way to get there, and you have to bring your wallet or your purse to pay,” Cuomo said. “And don't forget the phone, because you can't go anywhere without the phone.” 

A recent Siena College poll found the majority of New Yorkers support the ban, but there are opponents.

During debate on the measure on the Senate floor in late March, Sen. Andrew Lanza, a Republican from Long Island, called the bill a “sham” and said he doesn’t think it will solve the pollution problem. He predicted some people would hoard the bags in anticipation of the ban.

“There are going to be just as many bags out there as there are now,” Lanza said. “This legislation doesn’t prevent me or any person back home from going down the aisle where they sell the plastic bags in the supermarket and buying as many as they want. Hundreds, thousands. You might want to start storing up now.”

The law also includes a way to discourage the use of paper bags as a substitute for plastic bags. Counties can decide if they want to impose a five-cent fee on paper bags. Efforts will be made to help lower-income New Yorkers who might find buying the bags a hardship.

Some single-use bags, like garment bags, trash bags and bags used to wrap foods like fruit or sliced meats, will still be legal.

New York state follows California and Hawaii in banning the bags. The ban takes effect March 1.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.