New York: plastic bag ban takes effect to address ‘environmental blights’

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MARCH 1, 2020

Businesses will no longer be allowed to provide or sell plastic bags in third state after California and Oregon to enforce ban

Pharmacy has plastic bags for distribution to customers in advance of ban, in Manhattan. Photograph: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Every year, New York state gets through a staggering 23bn plastic bags – the vast majority of which end up in landfill or polluting streets, green spaces and waterways.

But it is hoped the single-use carriers will become a relic of the past, now a long-awaited state-wide ban on single use plastic bags has come into force.

The new law means most businesses will no longer be allowed to provide or sell plastic bags. However, it will not completely outlaw plastic bags. Notable exceptions include takeaway and delivery food, prescription drugs, rubbish bags, uncooked meat and fish and some non-film plastic “reusable” bags.

Governor Andrew Cuomo hailed the ban, which went into effect on Sunday, as a “bold action to protect our environment and ban these environmental blights”. Handing out free tote bags in Manhattan, New York mayor Bill de Blasio told New Yorkers: “We only have once chance to save our planet.”

New York is the third state after California and Oregon to enforce a state-wide ban. The counties of Hawaii have individual bans. Other states set to follow suit include Maine and Vermont this year and Connecticut and Delaware in 2021.

Initially, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation said it planned to focus on education rather than punishment for those who do not abide by the ban. In recent weeks, signs have appeared in shops alerting customers to the changes and a social media campaign is urging people to “bring your own bag”. Free reusable bags are being offered to low-income households.

In the long term, businesses that do not comply after a warning can be fined $250 for a first violation and $500 for any further violations in the same year.

Some local authorities, including New York city – which alone gets through 10 billion plastic bags annually – will charge a five cent fee for paper bags.

Mark Chambers, director of the New York city mayor’s office of sustainability, said: “The paper bag fee coupled with the bag ban encourages a deeper culture shift in New York City towards reusable habits. This is a critical shift we need to cultivate if we are to meet our zero waste goals.”

City authorities recently pledged to cut use of single-use plastic cutlery, foodware and bottles and to seek a city-wide reduction on plastic straws. New York state is considering a ban on single use styrofoam food containers.

Plastic bags are tangled in the branches of a tree in New York City’s East Village neighborhood. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

‘It should have come much sooner’

But are New Yorkers ready to give up their dependence on plastic?

At Essex Market on the Lower East Side this week, shoppers were generally in favour of the ban but many still appeared to be relying on plastic bags.

Sierra Graham, 24, a student from Brooklyn who works part-time in a food store in the market, was carrying a plastic bag but had ordered several tote bags online.

“It’s definitely possible for New Yorkers to adapt and change because that’s what New Yorkers are known for,” she said. “So I think a lot more people will be going in for tote bags, coming more prepared, since some stores are already enforcing things like that.”

Egon Zippel, 59, a visual artist who was stuffing two tin cans into his rucksack, said: “I think it’s great and it should have come much sooner … So yeah, I’m happy they’re implementing it.” He thought the charge for paper should be higher.

Luis Vargas, 53, owner of Luna Brothers Fruit Plaza, a grocery store, said that until now he has been buying around 10 cases of plastic bags a week, each containing 600 bags. They will now sell paper and reusable tote bags.

“I see a lot of plastic all around the city and river, the sea,” he said. “For the store I think it [the ban] is convenient too because we spent a lot of money on plastic every year, thousands of dollars on plastic bags. That way people have to use the reusable bags, save money and it’s better for the city.”

Others were less optimistic.

While Jessie Moore, 22, who works in the market and lives in Brooklyn, thinks the ban is a positive step, she predicts people will be confused.

“Although those signs are up and we’ve received warning about it I think people are still going to expect to be receiving plastic bags and just will be unsure how to transport their stuff.”

She added: “This is never something we’ve had to confront before. I don’t think that New Yorkers or Americans in general are used to giving up those comforts, as small as they are, it will seem unfeasible almost.”

Angela Zhou, 38, manager of a nearby grocery store, was worried.

“I don’t know where I can buy the paper bags. They say the paper bag for the customer costs five cents, I think if we bought it, it would probably cost more money.”

Outside Key Food in East Village, Tony Pagan, 49, a retired DJ, said the ban will impact people’s spending because “you’re just going to buy what you can carry”. He added: “The bags are definitely going to make a big impact – in a good and a bad way.”

The Food Industry Alliance of New York, which represents around 800 stores across the state, has “major concerns” about the dependence the new law will put on paper bags which they argue are seven to eight times more expensive than plastic bags and in short supply.

Kristina Wieneke, the organisation’s vice-president of government affairs, said: “Understandably, retailers are concerned about the anticipated backlash from the public … grocery stores typically operate within a 1%-2% profit margin. This additional financial burden will certainly have consequences for the industry.”

Some small business owners have tried to fight the ban. Last minute legal action means the ban cannot be enforced until 1 April, but NYS DEC said there was no plan to immediately start issuing fines. But Youssef Mubarez, a spokesperson for the Yemeni American Merchants Association, which represents 5,000 bodega owners across New York, said they “fully support” it. As it progresses they will be looking to see how the city and state respond to their concerns.

Environmental campaigners said the ban was a landmark moment.

Dianna Cohen, chief executive and co-founder of non-profit Plastic Pollution Coalition, said she had “very high hopes” for the ban being effective.

“It’s just a way of helping people open their eyes to begin to see the plastic pollution problem … I look at these laws as ways for people to get started in the right direction.”

Dune Ives, executive director of incubator Lonely Whale, said the ban would have an “immediate impact” in New York, but that it will also have an effect globally.

“That will send a signal to the market place, a signal to the supply chains that change is really underway.”

Lauren Singer, activist and chief executive of New York zero waste store Package Free Shop, said that while not perfect the ban will help create “the societal norm that plastic bags are not good”.

But, similarly to the 2003 New York city smoking ban, it is a shift that Judith Enck, president of environmental advocacy group Beyond Plastics, believes will take time.

When the state of New York said you can’t do that anymore there was resistance in the beginning and now we can’t imagine having tobacco smoke in restaurants and bars and aeroplanes,” said Enck, who was a US Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator under the Obama administration.

“So it [the plastic bag ban changes] is going to take a little bit of time. I think the public is ready.”


Courtesy/Source: The Guardian