Plastic Pollution, Bag Bans
May 14 2018

New York is Considering a Statewide Plastic Bag Ban, But The Governor’s Proposal Falls Short

by Trent Hodges

New developments are taking place on the plastic bag ban front in New York as the state goverment and NYC try to find ways to compromise and bring an end to single-use plastic bag pollution.  Last year in February, Surfrider reported on the unfortunate decision of the state government to preempt legislation that the BagitNYC and NYC chapter of the Surfrider Foundation successfully passed in New York City that would have placed a fee on single-use plastic bags, a proven effective method for incentivizing reusable and recyclable bags.  On May 5, 2016 the New York City Council adopted the #BYOBag law, which required that all retailers in NYC charge a 5-cent minimum fee for each carryout bag provided at check-out.  However, around the same time, the state of New York delayed the implementation of the law from October 1, 2016 until February 15, 2017.  Then in January 2017, the state of New York reintroduced preemption bills that would compromise any local ordinance by the city of New York on plastic bags. In February 2017, the state voted to nullify the #BYOBag law and Governor Cuomo subsequently signed a bill into law that put a moratorium on the local plastic bag ban just before it was supposed to go into effect.

All of this back and forth led to an 88-page report released on January 13, 2018 that gave a broad overview of plastic bag legislation and included 8 options for the state of New York to consider in moving forward with a policy including a fee on all single-use bags, a ban on single-use plastic bags, and a hybrid option that includes a ban on single-use plastic bags and a fee on all other alternatives.

Though the findings of the report largely reveal that a ban/fee hybrid such as the one adopted by the state of California is a highly successful legislative model and most of the public comments support such an action, the state decided to take a different path.  On April 23, Governor Cuomo introduced a statewide bill that would ban the provision of single-use plastic bags with no fee attached to other bags like paper as well as preempt any local law or ordinance now or in the future that would regulate single-use plastic bags.

Though this bill might have the best of intentions, it falls short of providing a comprehensive legislative solution to single-use plastic bag pollution and ignores the overwhelming evidence showing that a ban/fee hybrid is the best solution as well as disregards public comment and its own Plastic Bag Task Force report.  Furthermore, evidence has shown that straight plastic bag bans often have unintended consequences and can make the problem worse.  For example, when Chicago banned single-use plastic bags of a certain thickness, stores began selling thicker plastic bags and this legislation did nothing to curb the use of single-use bags.  In response, the city of Chicago adopted a fee on single-use bags as they found this as the most effective option to curb plastic pollution. 

Moving forward, the New York City chapter of the Surfrider Foundation is participating in a coalition of organizations in order to respond to Governor Cuomo's proposal.  Specifically, Surfrider will advocate for a law that places a fee on paper and carryout bags and does not preempt local jurisdictions from keeping or enacting their own ordinances, so long as they do not conflict with updated statewide legislation.  

At the end of the day, it is a promising and positive step that the state of New York is considering legislation on plastic bags, but we now know enough about how these work in practice to make the smart choice and solve the problem by creating incentives for consumers to change their shopping habits and shift away from the single-use mentality.