(Written by Anne Barnard)
New York is banning the distribution of single-use plastic bags statewide on Sunday, a move with the ambitious goal of reducing the billions of discarded bags that stream annually into landfills, rivers and oceans.
The law forbids most businesses from handing out the thin bags that are ubiquitous in supermarkets, bodegas and boutiques, making New York the third state to bar the bags after California, where a ban has already changed the way millions of people shop, and Oregon, where one took effect last month.
If successful, the transition could spur a cultural sea change as significant as the end of smoking in bars, or the shift in attitudes ushered by seat belt laws: Once optional, buckling up is now so automatic for most people that it happens almost unconsciously.
New Yorkers currently use 23 billion plastic bags each year, state officials say, many of which end up as one of the most problematic forms of garbage. They blow across streets and become caught in trees. They harm birds and marine creatures. They clog sorting machines, making recycling them cumbersome.
Measures in other countries and localities have significantly reduced plastic bag use, and a study in Washington found a 5-cent bag fee there had cut down on plastic pollution in waterways. The laws — including a de facto ban in Hawaii, where all counties forbid such bags — also aim to address climate change by reducing the planet-warming emissions from making the petroleum-based bags.
California’s ban led to a 72% drop in plastic bag use. Although the law passed narrowly in a referendum — and opinions on it remain divided — implementation was relatively smooth.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation does not plan on fining stores that continue to distribute bags on Day 1. Instead, the state has created an assiduous public education effort, called #BYOBagNY, essentially asking shoppers to build a new habit: bringing reusable bags. Proponents say that it will soon become a reflex.
“You leave the house, you say, ‘I got my keys, I got my phone, I got my sunglasses, I got my bag,’” said Erica Ringewald, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
There is already concern from some business owners and customers, who worry that the ban will make it hard to shop without planning ahead, or will impose new costs.
But just thinking about how to carry a purchase, officials and environmental advocates say, could lead to an even larger shift, making people more mindful of what they buy and where it ends up.
“This is the first really big push back against disposable culture,” said Peter Iwanowicz, a longtime environmental official and advocate, and a member of the state’s new Climate Action Council.
“This feels to me like a seminal moment, like the first indoor smoking bans or tobacco taxes,” he added. “Right now, the bag is just so automatic for both you and the clerk. You accept the bag handed to you even though you didn’t need it for that one greeting card.”
Previous attempts to ban single-use plastic bags in New York, or to impose a charge for them, were met with concerns about cost, cleanliness and burdens on low-income residents.
In 2016, the New York City Council narrowly voted to approve a 5-cent plastic bag fee, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo blocked it. Cuomo then set up a task force to study the issue, and in 2018 proposed the state law based on its findings. The bill was one of a raft of environmental measures to pass in 2019, after the Democrats took control of both houses of the Legislature.
There are exceptions to the bag ban: Plastic can be used for takeout food; uncooked meat or fish and other products that could contaminate items; weighed produce; and prescription drugs. Newspaper bags, garment bags and bags sold in bulk, like trash or recycling bags, are also exempt.
Paper bags are still allowed, and local governments can impose a 5-cent fee for each one a customer takes. The cities and counties that opt in to that fee will keep 2 cents per bag to spend on programs aimed at distributing reusable bags, and the remaining 3 cents will go to New York’s Environmental Protection Fund.
Customers on food stamps and public assistance will be exempt from paper-bag fees.
There, of course, are skeptics of the plastic ban, especially in New York City, where most people do not drive to supermarkets and shops. A bedrock feature of life in the city is running errands on the spur of the moment, or making impulse buys while walking or using public transportation.
“This is going to be the worst thing to happen to this store,” said Sal Husain, who manages a C-Town grocery store in the Inwood section of Manhattan. “It’s OK to protect the environment, but there’s going to be a lot of problems with customers.”
On Thursday, signs about the imminent ban were posted in nearly every aisle of the supermarket, which uses some 100 cases of plastic bags each week, according to Husain. Customers were already buying reusable bags for $1 each, but Husain said he had also stocked paper bags that he was planning to soon offer for 10 cents apiece.
Still, he fears he may have to reduce the paper-bag price, taking a loss. “If a customer is already spending $200 or $300 here, how am I going to tell them they need to pay extra for the paper bags?” he asked.
Across the street, Fatih Demir has been selling fruit for the past 15 years from a stand pitched below a white canopy. Most of his business comes from subway riders heading to and from the A train, he said.
“Our customers keep asking, ‘What’s going to happen?’” he said. “The woman who sells next to me keeps asking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ People don’t have the time to prepare for this stuff. This is America, where people most value their time.”
Demir said that he had tried to find an affordable supplier of environmentally friendly bags of his own design, but ran out of time.
“I’m going to have to just keep using these bags, even if I get a penalty,” he said, shrugging and pointing to a stack of plastic bags hanging from his table, just below his produce. “I can’t afford to lose my customers.”
The idea, Cuomo said, is “not to be punitive,” but to educate shoppers and businesses, and persuade them to change their habits. Still, the state can fine businesses $250 for a first violation and $500 for a repeat offense.
The law defines reusable bags as those made to withstand a minimum of 125 uses and carry 22 pounds over a distance of at least 175 feet, with at least one handle. In practice, most are fabric, jute or thick polyester. In New York City, free ones can be obtained by taking the Department of Sanitation’s online zero waste pledge or attending giveaway events.
In some ways, the transition has already begun, as eco-conscious New Yorkers have voluntarily adopted reusable bags and the stores cater to them. For some shoppers and stores, bags emblazoned with slogans and images have become a fashion statement, a method of virtue signaling and even an economic opportunity.
That transition was on display Thursday in Manhattan. Some residents could be seen trying to untangle bundles of loaded plastic bags spinning between their fingers. Others gripped reusable totes with both hands or pushed hand carts stuffed with both plastic and reusable bags.
Sylvie Kande, 62, of Harlem, was carrying paper bags out of a Whole Foods Market in Midtown. She said the ban was a good idea.
“It’s been done already in countries all around the world, and if it’s done there, it could be done here,” Kande said. “Everybody has to make sacrifices. And I know this is much easier for the bourgeoisie than it is for the working class, and it’s going to take some time. But we have to do it. This is an important transition.”
Some New Yorkers have lamented the loss of plastic bags as a free source of packaging they reuse at home. Others have mourned them as design icons. Stewart’s, a chain that is popular in upstate New York, has labeled its last week’s worth of bags as a “Collector’s Item.”
And designers have seen opportunities: Canvas totes printed with “Thank You” and “Have a Nice Day,” slogans usually seen on generic plastic bags, have proliferated for sale on the internet.
Some people have even said that the ban would be hard on men, because many do not carry purses or other bags. But many men already carry backpacks, or keep reusable bags in their cars, and there are some small enough to fit in a pocket.
State officials said that removing the bags from the waste stream would not only have a broad environmental benefit, but also a visible impact on people’s surroundings, as bags disappear from parks, beaches and streets.
Kande, the Midtown shopper, said the trouble would be worth it. “We can adjust,” she said.
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