Plastic Pollution
April 01 2019

An Incomplete Law, but Good First Step in New York for Plastic Bag Pollution

by Matt Gove

After Surfrider chapters in New York have been advocating for a single-use plastic bag ban for years, the Governor is finally showing that the state will act on plastic pollution. The New York State annual budget passed this week, which included legislation banning the use of thin film plastic bags in the state. The ban will go into effect on March 1, 2020.

The legislation bans New York stores from using plastic bags, except bags for restaurant orders, deli or meat counter products, bulk items, newspapers, dry cleaner garments and waste management.

This is a great first step towards reducing plastic bag litter in New York, but the legislation does have a serious flaw, it does nothing to incentivize reusable bags. As we have learned from the success of California's statewide bag ban, it is imperative that a ban on plastic bags also include a fee on paper and reusable bags at checkout to ensure that the use of paper bags does not skyrocket.  Though paper bags are biodegradable in the natural environment and do not cause the same damages as plastic, they also have an environmental footprint including the energy and water needed to produce them.

Surfrider has seen legislation like this backfire in other parts of the country, as consumers simply switch to using paper bags instead of plastic. For example, after the passage of a plastic bag ban in the city of Portland, paper bag usage increased 491%In contrast, a survey of grocery stores during a six month period before and after the California statewide bag ban demonstrated a 61 percent reduction in the number of paper bags provided to customers. This results of this study also found that in 86 percent of transactions, no bag was purchased after the bill went into effect.

Surfrider strongly recommended that the legislation in New York include a fee on paper bags to incentivize the use of reusable bags. As Surfrider's Plastic Bag Ban Activist Toolkit demonstrates, this is clearly the most successful type of bag law in terms of reducing plastic pollution and minimizing the environmental impacts of other single-use alternatives such as paper.

Speaking to the flaw in the legislation, Surfrider Foundation Legal Director Angela Howe said, "While we applaud the intention of this bill to reduce single-use plastics, it unfairly puts the burden on municipalities to make it a complete and satisfactory bag regulation."

The silver lining is that the New York bag legislation includes a pathway for local governments like counties and cities to pass their own legislation, adding a fee on paper bags to the plastic bag ban language.

Surfrider chapters and volunteers will keep up the pressure to make those changes at the county level. So stay tuned, the fight is not over in New York to ensure no more plastic bags enter our ocean and plague our beaches!