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New York to begin enforcing plastic bag ban on Oct. 19

New York's upcoming ban on single-use plastic bags is a good thing, but more needs to be done, says former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck.
New York's upcoming ban on single-use plastic bags is a good thing, but more needs to be done, says former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck.

New York state’s environmental agency will begin enforcing a ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores and other retailers on Oct. 19, more than seven months after the law took effect.

The law banning the single-use bags was to have taken effect on March 1, with a grace period before actual enforcement began. But the COVID-19 pandemic, and an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by the plastics industry, delayed its implementation.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said that changes next month.

“New York state will begin enforcing the ban on plastic bags starting on Oct. 19,” Seggos said in a video on the agency’s website.

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Seggos said New Yorkers use a “staggering” 23 billion plastic bags a year, and 85% end up in landfills, or as litter, and enforcement of the law will go a long way toward reducing those numbers.

Retailers face penalties of up to $250 for each violation of the law, and up to $500 for a second violation if it occurs in the same calendar year.

Liz Moran, environmental policy director with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the action has been a long time coming.

“We’re pleased,” said Moran. “This is a very important law.”

The plastics industry predicted that the new law won’t work because stores have limited options for providing alternatives to the bags. Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, said in a statement that the law “remains broken” and that the DEC is trying to “force a square peg into a round hole.”

Earlier this year, plastics manufacturers predicted a paper bag shortage would occur once major grocery chains and other retailers made the switch. It’s unclear whether that has actually occurred.

Moran said there’s a solution for shoppers: They can bring in their own reusable bags.

“The best thing to do is to educate consumers about reusable bags,” said Moran. “And to make sure that people bring reusable bags to the stores with them.”

Early on in the pandemic, there was concern that the virus could be easily transmitted on surfaces, but new Centers for Disease Control data shows that is less likely and that airborne transmission is more common.

Moran said if cashiers are uncomfortable handling people’s reusable bags, then shoppers should respect those worries and pack the bags themselves.

“Understandably, people want to act in an abundance of precaution; they don’t want to spread this horrible illness,” said Moran, who added that many shoppers are already packing their own reusable bags at stores and it seems to be “working fine.”

Moran said she has faith that the DEC is serious about enforcing the law, and predicted that it will have a “huge impact.”

Others aren’t waiting for the agency to act. Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and head of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College, said the DEC does not have the staff to inspect every store and is urging shoppers to report violations that they might witness after the enforcement date.

She said Beyond Plastics would also like to hear about potential violations so they can track whether there’s a pattern with a particular retailer, and whether the state environmental agency followed through correctly. She said the results will be made public.

“If there’s a large chain, for instance, that’s not complying, we’ll call them first and ask why, and then we’ll publicize the results,” Enck said. “Stores have had a long time to prepare for this.”

She credited the grocery chains that have proactively ended using plastic bags.

The DEC is also asking shoppers to reach out to the agency directly if they witness violations and want to make a complaint after the enforcement begins on Oct. 19.

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.