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10 things you need to know about the plastic bag ban

Samantha Christmann

It's almost time for the state to start enforcing its B.Y.O.B. – bring your own bag – policy. New York's plastic bag ban goes into effect March 1.

Once the law kicks in, merchants won't be allowed to load customers' purchases into plastic bags at checkout. That includes any store that collects sales tax, including convenience, thrift, liquor and big box stores.

The Department of Environmental Conservation just finalized its rules for the Bag Waste Reduction Law, including the consequences for those who don't follow them. At first, the DEC will hand out warnings to merchants caught distributing single-use bags at checkout. After that, merchants will get a $250 fine, and $500 fines for additional violations.

Here are a few things you may want to know as the change approaches.

Your reusable bag may not be a "reusable bag" under the law's standards. A reusable bag must be designed to stand up to at least 125 uses, and hold 22 pounds or more, according to the DEC. It should also have a handle and be hand- or machine-washable.

But if the bags you have at home don't meet those standards, it doesn't mean you can't use them in stores. The law only governs what retailers can offer for sale or free at checkout.

You can bring single-use plastic bags to stores with you. You can bring any receptacle you want into stores to carry out your purchases, including disposable grocery bags.

Some consumers are exempt from paper bag fees. Though none of the Western New York counties have imposed a mandatory 5-cent fee for paper bags, some retail chains, such as Wegmans and Tops Markets, have incorporated paper bag fees into their store policies.

Consumers in counties that have imposed the mandatory fee – and who receive SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps, or Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC – are exempt from any paper bag fees, according to the DEC.

Stores are not required to provide paper bags. The law doesn't obligate stores to offer paper bags, but we haven't heard of any store that won't.

Some plastic bags are exempt from the ban. Have no fear, there will still be plastic bags available throughout grocery stores for drippy meats, produce and bulk items. And they still can be used to package meats at the deli counter, sliced foods and made-to-order foods.

Dry cleaners can continue using garment bags. Restaurants can offer bags for takeout. Pharmacists can use bags for prescriptions and newspapers can be dropped off in delivery bags. The law does not require customers to pay for exempt bags.

Exempt bags have specific purposes. You are not allowed to use exempt bags for anything other than their express purpose while in the store. So, for example, you can't grab 10 bags from the produce aisle and fill them with groceries at checkout.

You'll still be able to buy plastic bags off the shelves for home use. Just because retailers won't be allowed to gather your final purchases in a plastic bag doesn't mean you can't buy trash can liners and dog waste bags. The law doesn't prevent the sale of any kind of plastic bag.

You can buy 240 dog waste bags or 40 small trash bags for $1 at Dollar Tree. Compostable and biodegradable options are also available.

Leftover bags won't be thrown out. Many retail chains have said they will ship any remaining bags to their out-of-state stores for use there. If a store decides to discard the bags it has left, it's not allowed to destroy them or toss them in a dumpster. They must be recycled.

Plastic bag recycling bins will stay put. Stores will still be required to maintain recycling bins for plastic bags and plastic film, even after the ban goes into effect.

Learn how to care for your reusable bags. Bags should have a care tag with instructions on how to hand or machine wash them. Clean and disinfect them often.

Plastic bags make their final appearance at Wegmans

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