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Editorial: It's time to ban plastic bags

If the statewide ban on single-use plastic bags being proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo becomes law, which in likelihood it will, New York residents will have to sacrifice some convenience for the good of the environment. That’s a fair deal.

Plastic shopping bags, which are non-biodegradable, end up littering streets, clogging sewers, covering tree branches and polluting our waterways. Scientists estimate that 8 million metric tons of plastic trash enter the oceans every year.

The bags also jam landfills, where they can sit from 500 to 1,000 years.

New York stores give out 23 billion plastic bags in a year; for many consumers they will be a hard habit to break. Some prefer the light weight of plastic compared to paper bags. Others don’t want to tote around reusable ones.

And stores have to pay more to transport paper bags, which have greater weight and volume than plastic. Many grocers and other retailers would rather keep the status quo, but a growing sense of public urgency about the environment is driving change. More than 80 municipalities, including Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have passed bans on single-use plastic bags. New York would join California and Hawaii in having statewide prohibitions.

There’s no free lunch when it comes to bag options. Paper bags are biodegradable and can be recycled or composted, but require water, fuel and paper to produce, giving them an initial carbon footprint that’s greater than plastic bags. And reusable cloth bags are typically made of cotton, which needs a lot of land and water to grow.

The more a bag is reused, the lower its carbon footprint. Many of the municipalities that restrict plastic bag use also attach a fee to paper bags, to discourage their use and steer people toward reusable cloth totes. That might be a step too far initially for New York State, but it’s something the governor and legislators should consider.

Some localities prefer using fees instead of outright bans. Ireland imposed a fee of 15 euro cents per plastic bag in 2002, and saw annual use drop from an estimated 328 bags to 14 per person by 2014.

In 2017, Cuomo blocked a five-cent surcharge that New York City had sought to impose on single-use plastic bags. He designated a state task force to study the issue and the panel presumably recommended the ban.

A concern over outlawing plastic bags in a grocery store is that the bags appear to be “free” – their cost is folded into the cost of the store’s goods – while there is a separate charge for reusable cloth or plastic bags. That’s true, though a $1 or $2 bag can last a long time if reused over months and years. Also, the Cuomo administration’s press release announcing the new regulations said accommodations would be made for lower-income populations, including giving them free, reusable bags.

At the Aldi supermarket chain, clerks put your groceries in a cart and leave it to the customer to put them in bags, or not. Perhaps the state’s plastic prohibition is first a step on our way to a bagless future.

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