Share this article

print logo

As plastic bag ban looms in New York State, shoppers wonder: Now what?

There is one thing everyone seems to agree on: Plastic bags are bad for the environment.

But when it comes to the plastic bag ban that has apparently been approved as part of the state's budget talks, that's where the public consensus ends.

Consumers are divided. Is the ban a meaningful move in environmental conservation or just a green-washed money grab?

“I’m not opposed to the 5-cent charge, to keep the environment clean,” said Michelle Campbell, 53, of Orchard Park. “It’s probably one of those things where, after a while, you just get used to it. People were probably really ticked at the bottle deposit, and now it’s just a way of life.”

Retailers contend an outright ban would be costly for stores and have unintended negative consequences for the environment.

Under the plan apparently approved by state lawmakers, plastic bags would be banned outright. But counties and cities would be given an option for a nickel fee on any paper bag provided to consumers; 60 percent of the revenues would go to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund and 40 percent would go to the county or city enacting the paper bag fee. The localities can use the revenues to purchase and distribute reusable bags, mostly for low-income residents.

A number of carve-outs are included in the plastic bag ban, such as people enrolled in the SNAP and WIC low-income programs would be exempt from the charge. Also, plastic bags could still be given to consumers to hold prescription drugs, newspapers, and items such as sandwich meat sliced to order at grocery stores. Also, plastic garbage, garment and restaurant takeout plastic bags will still be permitted.

[School aid, plastic bag ban on track as state budget deals flow]

Jo Natale, a Wegmans spokesperson, said a plastic bag ban would have a "significant financial impact" on the grocery industry.

"A plastic bag ban that doesn’t also address the use of paper bags is not a sustainable solution," she said. "Just one implication, and there are others: It takes seven tractor trailers to transport the same number of paper bags as plastic bags carried by one tractor trailer."

Paper bags also are more expensive — five times more expensive than a plastic bag, according to the New York State Food Industry Alliance.

Letting counties impose a 5-cent tax on any paper bag provided to consumers could mean the fee is passed on to the customer.

That means customers would likely pay 5-cents per bag but the retailer, which pays more for paper bags, wouldn't get to keep any of it. Under that current scenario, 60 percent of the revenue collected would go to the state's Environmental Protection Fund, while 40 percent would go to the locality.

"There's no relief whatsoever to the retail food industry," said Michael Durant, president and CEO of the New York State Food Industry Alliance.

Leaving the 5-cent tax option up to each municipality could lead to a confusing patchwork of rules, which could create other headaches for retailers, Durant said.

"You could have the City of Buffalo say 'We’re gonna charge a fee of a nickel on paper bags,' but then you can have Tonawanda say, 'We’re not going to impose a fee on paper bags,' and then you could have Cheektowaga say they want to ban paper bags as well," Durant said. "So you could have a Tops with stores in all three cities dealing with bags in different ways."

Jim Calvin, president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, said he believes banning plastic bags will simply cause a run on paper bags, despite any 5-cent tax.

"If you place a fee on plastic and not paper, customers shift to paper," Calvin said.

He thinks adopting a 5-cent charge for paper and plastic single-use bags would be a better solution.

That's what Suffolk County on Long Island did last year. It resulted in an 80 percent decrease in single-use plastic bag consumption during the first two quarters of 2018, according to a Food Industry Alliance survey of its members. The money consumers paid for bags in Suffolk County, however, went to stores.

California and Hawaii are the only states to have banned single-use plastic bags so far, but plastic bags haven't disappeared there. Instead of the filmy, disposable bags they used to hand out by the billion, retailers are now only allowed to sell thicker, reusable plastic bags for 10 cents apiece.

Legislation in 2008 required stores in New York State to have in-store plastic bag recycling programs and to print their bags with the message "Please return to a participating store for recycling."

Gail Potter is not sure a ban on bags is the right way to go. She and her non-profit organization Mats for a Mission takes used plastic bags and knits them into mats for homeless people. Each mat incorporates 850 used bags.

"What can I say? It'll shut down our group," Potter said.

Other consumers were hesitant as well, saying they use grocery bags for everything from cleaning up after their dogs to trash can liners.
But the great majority of single-use bags end up in the trash or, worse, as litter. Only 1 percent get recycled, according to Texas-based disposal company Waste Management.

John Schmelzer, of Boston, 72, said he would "hate to see the environment ruined," but 5 cents per bag is where he draws the line. "That ain’t gonna happen,” he said.

"It’s all about making money," he said. "The state is in such terrible shape they find every way they can to get every nickel and dime out of you.”

Bill Joyce, 41, of Lackawanna, forgot his reusable bags on a grocery run Thursday, so he had a large cart full of plastic bags filled with groceries. He said he’d be fine paying a nickel for each of them in the future. It might even make him more likely to remember his reusable bags.

"As long as the money is going to the environment," he said.

News staff reporters Keith McShea and Tom Precious contributed to this story.

There are no comments - be the first to comment