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Supporters, opponents find fault with new state regs on plastic bag ban

It's possible that single-use plastic bags could be banned in New York state as part of the new state budget.
It's possible that single-use plastic bags could be banned in New York state as part of the new state budget.

The state’s ban on most single-use plastic bags takes effect March 1, and over the holiday weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s environmental agency released regulations on how to carry out the new law.

It’s the second time that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation chose a holiday to introduce rules that will affect most New Yorkers. The draft regulations for carrying out the plastic bag ban were released on Thanksgiving Eve.

The new rules have left both environmentalists and the plastics industry fuming.

The plastic manufacturing industry, which is against the ban, said the agency has not done enough to promote the transition. Matt Seaholm with the American Recyclable Bag Alliance, which is part of the Plastics Industry Association, is predicting a rocky transition. 

“They’re going to have a mess on their hands when this really goes into effect,” said Seaholm, who's also anticipating that lawmakers will have to revise the statute. “There’s going to be some cleanup on aisle three.”

Larger chain grocery stores are aware of the change. Many have done their own promotions, with signs informing customers of the change, and offering discount prices on reusable bags. But Seaholm said smaller stores don’t have the resources to do that.

Paper bags are still permissible under the new law. But Seaholm predicted that there will be a shortage of paper bags, as production has fallen off in recent years. He says it takes three to five years to begin a new paper processing plant. 

And he said the coronavirus may lead to a shortage of reusable bags. He cited an industry-sponsored study that finds virus-related quarantines in Asia could lead to supply chain disruptions.

“100% of those typical reusable bags are made overseas, predominately China and Vietnam,” Seaholm said. 

Supporters of the ban say the plastic industry’s warnings are overblown. But Liz Moran with the New York Public Interest Research Group agreed that the state’s environmental agency has not done enough to publicize the new law. 

“It’s no secret that a lot more needs to be done,” Moran said. 

Moran says she’s concerned that the environmental agency may have inadvertently created a loophole for thicker types of single-use plastic bags to be sold. The DEC regulations say bags that are thinner than 10 mils are not allowed. A mil is one-thousandth of an inch.

But Seaholm, with the plastics industry, called the 10 mils rule a “distraction,” and he said a bag that thick would be too expensive to make and sell.

Judith Enck, the founder of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College and a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, also said she worries that plastic manufacturers could seize the opportunity to make and sell a new kind of bag, which would defeat the whole purpose of the law.

As for the expense, she likened it to what the public believed about iPhones a decade ago.

“IPhones were expensive and they weren’t that common,” Enck said. “And now our hands are permanently attached to iPhones.” 

The Assembly sponsors of the law wrote a letter to the DEC saying the regulations, including the thickness provision, “undercut the effectiveness” of the law. Assemblyman Steve Englebright, chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee, said the DEC is substituting its own judgement for that of the legislature. 

Sean Mahar, a spokesman for the DEC, says they used the 10 mils measurement because it is an industry standard used to define the cutoff point between a single-use plastic bag and the thicker kind of plastic used for things like building construction.

“Anything below 10 mils is what is considered film plastic,” Mahar explained. Film plastic is what is used to make the single-use bags.

“It will not be allowed under these regulations,” Mahar said.

Mahar said he has not seen any evidence of a shortage of paper bags or reusable bags. And he said the agency is stepping up its efforts to get the word out through ads that have begun running on television stations and underwriting on public radio. 

“We’ve got a big social media presence that’s going on, we have many videos that are online,” said Mahar, who added that the DEC website provides a lot of information and tips for how to cope with the transition. 

The environmental agency is giving stores and shoppers a grace period to adjust to the new law, and they said it will be a few months before they begin enforcing the ban. After that, businesses will be subject to a fine of $250 for the first offense, and $500 for every time afterward.

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.