Back to the Bag Ban

New York is still trying to fight its way out of what it some perceive as the plastic bag dilemma: How to eliminate the environmentally unfriendly convenience without harming businesses and adding unfairly to the average consumer’s cost of living.

The bags, typically made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic, have long been identified as a scourge of the environment. They pollute waterways, taking many years to decompose, meanwhile strangling fish, birds and animals, and they make streets and parks into an immense, free throw-away zone, with plastic everywhere, hanging from tree branches and bushes, and littering the sidewalks.

In recent years, some 54 countries have introduced various types of restrictions on their use, from outright bans to small fees per bag. (Bangladesh, not normally thought to be in the vanguard of progressive environmental actions, was the first, in 2002.)

In the United States, liberal California has led the way with the only statewide ban on the items. The territories of American Samoa and Puerto Rico, and more than 200 counties and municipalities around the country, have acted to restrict their use.

Now, New York is trying again. Governor Andrew Cuomo has said that a statewide ban would “help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic bag production and disposal, from petroleum used to produce the bags to emissions from the transportation of bags to landfills.

“The blight of plastic bags takes a devastating toll on our streets, our water and our natural resources, and we need to take action to protect our environment,” Governor Cuomo said.

“In New York we are moving forward with the nation’s strongest environmental policies and doing everything in our power to protect our natural resources for future generations,” he said, in the brave rhetoric of green politics.

Why hasn’t he done so until now?

Well, last April, Gov. Cuomo put forth a bag ban, but it failed to win passage in the state legislature. In 2017, the governor himself blocked a bag law, saying the fees collected would go into the pockets of store owners rather than into the funding of environmental programs.

What changed? Why does he think it will get through this time?

Simple. Then, the measure was bottled up by a Republican majority; this time, he has a Democratic majority, more likely to approve the change.

So it’s probable that the ban — details of which have not yet been revealed as of this writing — will be much like the previous one: Based on recommendations in a 2017 study, Cuomo is reportedly proposing a ban on single-use, plastic carryout bags at point of sale, but would exempt garment bags, trash bags and bags used to wrap or contain certain foods, such as fruits and sliced meats.

In addition, he wants to expand the 5-cent return on most non-alcoholic drink containers, such as sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit and vegetable drinks and ready-to-drink teas and coffees.

Indications are that the idea of charging shoppers for plastic bags will not be in the new proposal. Cuomo has given reassurances, too, that the measure will be enforced by the Department of Environmental Conservation with a specific mandate to avoid hurting low-income communities. How exactly that is to be accomplished remains to be seen.

The law would come with the usual campaign to raise consumer awareness as to the detrimental effects of plastic bags, and why they should be willing to shlep reusable bags to and from the stores.

There is, after all, a reason why plastic bags became so popular — it’s because of their convenience for all concerned.

The scope of the new law will be examined with skepticism. The environmental benefits certainly cannot be ignored, but neither can the consequences for people, who will have to wrestle with the havoc created by a ban, which could be passed by the legislature as early as April 1.

Rather than a governmental edict imposing an onerous new regime on the public, other, less-intrusive ideas should be considered.

Perhaps the state should offer free, reusable plastic containers (ideally something with wheels) or a cash incentive to customers and stores to encourage their use on a voluntary basis. Another idea is to encourage the usage of thicker plastic bags — more likely to be reused — rather than the thin ones that barely make it home. These and similar ideas should be tried first, before implementing a ban that will complicate the lives of millions of New Yorkers.