Shopping in New York state is about to get a bit more environmentally friendly, expensive and inconvenient.
On March 1, stores in the state will no longer be permitted to provide shoppers with the plastic shopping bags that have been a ubiquitous part of American life for decades. Stores may instead provide paper bags, but in New York City and several other areas, there is a mandatory 5-cent fee per paper bag. Customers requiring bags who wish to have a fee-free shopping trip have to bring their own. Reusable bags, generally made of thick plastic, will be available for purchase at many stores.
Advocates are hailing the new law as a victory for the environment: Plastic bags are made from petroleum, recycling facilities cannot process them, and they often end up as litter, entangled in tree branches, clogging sewer drains, polluting oceans and harming marine life. Opponents of the law say this is the latest case of nanny-state intrusion into every aspect of their daily lives and that it will result in increased costs and inconveniences.
In 2016, New York City passed a bill mandating a 5-cent charge on plastic shopping bags. Many state legislators representing districts in New York City vehemently opposed the fee.
“New Yorkers are very smart,” said state Sen. Simcha Felder at a press conference with other state legislators in May 2016. “When are our elected officials and bureaucrats going to stop deciding what’s best for New Yorkers and let New Yorkers decide for themselves?”
State legislators also argued that the city’s proposed bill was illegal because it amounted to a tax, which cities cannot enact without state permission. Supporters said that the 5-cent charge, which would be retained by the stores, was a fee and not a tax.
Though Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the bill, the state quickly passed its own bill banning any city from enacting a fee on shopping bags.
In signing the state bill, Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed concern about the effects of the estimated 23 billion plastic bags New Yorkers use annually but argued that the city bill was flawed, largely because the 5-cent fee went to stores rather than to government environmental programs, but also because it exempted certain businesses such as liquor stores and food trucks.
“Legislation often requires compromise but not capitulation,” Cuomo wrote in a memorandum when he signed the bill. “There is no need to pass an overly compromised bill … a statewide solution is the most appropriate way to address this issue.”
Cuomo then established a statewide task force to examine the issue and propose solutions. The task force proposed eight options — ranging from essentially doing nothing to implementing bans or fees, or both.
Following the November 2018 elections, Democrats were firmly in control of state government. They passed a raft of progressive bills in 2019 — including a bag bill that is just about the most stringent of the eight options proposed by the state task force.
And so, beginning March 1, retailers in New York will be prohibited from providing customers with plastic shopping bags other than the sturdy, reusable bags. Exceptions include those bags used to wrap raw meat or fish, or to package items from bulk containers like fruit, candy or small hardware items; bags sold in bulk in prepackaged boxes; trash bags; food storage bags; and bags provided by restaurants to carry out or deliver food.
The bill allows stores to provide customers with paper shopping bags, but it permits locales to enact a 5-cent fee on the paper bags. New York City is one of several locales that passed the paper-bag fee. Forty percent of the fees will be used by the city to provide free reusable bags, primarily to low-income residents; the rest will go to the state environmental fund.
To further mitigate the effects of the law on low-income families, the paper-bag fee will be waived for those paying with food stamps or WIC.
Though environmentalists prefer paper bags to plastic bags, as they say paper is more easily recyclable, their ultimate goal is to get shoppers to bring reusable bags to the stores. These bags are usually made of a thick plastic and can be reused hundreds of times, and are offered for sale at many stores.
A bag qualifies as “reusable” if it can be used at least 125 times, carry a minimum of 22 pounds over a distance of 175 feet, and has a strap or handle that is separately attached and does not stretch with use.
“I think this is an opportunity to clean up our neighborhoods and waterways,” Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Obama administration and president of the Beyond Plastics organization, tells Hamodia. “We have to stop using so much plastic.”
While shoppers may be feeling anxiety about the changes, Enck says “it’s just a transition period” and asks people to “give it a chance.”
“This is the same thing we heard when seat belts became mandatory in cars, and smoking restrictions” were enacted, she says. “This is a little bit of a change in routine, but it’s not difficult.”
Enck says shoppers just need to be sure to keep reusable bags on hand. Those who drive to the store to do their shopping should keep a supply of reusable bags in their car, she suggests. And for those who walk, she recommends that people keep a collapsible bag on hand, noting that she has had the same collapsible bag in her purse for over 10 years. For heavy shopping, she uses a stronger cloth bag, which she has had for over 25 years.
“People have to explore what reusables work best for them,” Enck says. Using reusables “is very easy to do once you get into the habit.”
Enck believes the law doesn’t go far enough; she’d prefer that it mandated a statewide fee on paper bags rather than leaving it up to each city or county. And she is unhappy that the ban doesn’t apply to all businesses, noting, “When a turtle swallows a plastic bag, it doesn’t make a distinction between whether the bag was from a restaurant or a supermarket.”
Alexander Rapaport, a Boro Park father of seven who is executive director of the Masbia soup kitchen/food pantry network, says he supports the new bag laws.
“We should all care deeply about the environment,” says Rapaport. “Almost every tree in New York City has a plastic bag caught in it. Plastic bags are not biodegradable. Banning them is long overdue.”
Rapaport believes the effects on shoppers won’t be as drastic as feared, noting that most neighborhood families have their large weekly food order delivered in boxes, which are not subject to the fees.
“It’s only when I do a small personal shopping, like when I buy myself a sandwich, that I have tried to get myself used to not using a bag — and recently, I have been declining one when the cashier offers it to me,” he says. “Sometimes it is weird to carry items without a bag, but the more this becomes the norm, the more it will be accepted.”
State Sen. Andrew Gounardes says there are multiple benefits to reusable bags.
“In addition to protecting our environment, reusable bags rip less and hold more,” he says, noting that he and many other elected officials are giving away reusable bags for free at their offices.
“New Yorkers are sick and tired of being nickel-and-dimed and having to face more regulations, fines and taxes, and the bag issue is just the latest example,” Sen. Felder tells Hamodia. “Instead of taking care of the real problems that face New Yorkers — homelessness, poverty, security and crime — the city and state are busy with shopping bags.”
“Everyday New York families and small-business owners will bear the brunt of this terrible plastic bag ban,” said Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, another opponent of the law. “It is a misguided attempt to help the environment while making it harder for large families to purchase the groceries that they depend on week in and week out.”
Nearly all Brooklyn shoppers who spoke with Hamodia said they oppose the new bills.
“From now on, I’ll just have my supermarket orders delivered in boxes,” said Zevi, a Midwood father of three. “There’s no fee, and I don’t have to make myself crazy walking around like a fool with reusable bags. The stores will use their delivery vehicle more, and the upshot will be that my carbon footprint is bigger. The nanny state seems oblivious to the law of unintended consequences.”
Heshy, a Boro Park father of 12, says he lives on the fifth floor of a building without an elevator and often goes shopping straight from work.
“Now I will have to either shlep a reusable bag all day with me, and probably forget it somewhere along the way, or I’ll have to first go home and climb all those stairs to get a reusable bag.
“Whoever made this law probably never went shopping,” Heshy continues. “What will happen when the eggs crack or milk spills on the way home? With disposable bags, I’d just throw them out. Will these lawmakers come help clean up my reusable bag?”
Heshy says that at one recent shopping trip, he was given a paper bag — which tore as he walked in the street with his groceries.
Heshy’s wife Zeesy takes a more measured approach. “We will deal with it when it happens,” she says. “In the larger context of things, we have far greater challenges to deal with in life.”
Kalman Yeger was one of the City Councilmembers who opposed the paper-bag fee when it passed 38-9 last April.
“This is another tax on New Yorkers,” says Yeger. “No matter how you frame it, a fee is a tax. And it’s a regressive tax, because it hurts the poor more than others. Even the exception for WIC and food stamps only applies when you are buying food and paying with WIC or food stamps. But once your benefits run out each month and you’re paying cash, you too will have to pay the fee.
“And paper bags are indeed recyclable,” says Yeger. “Whatever supposed justifications exist for opposing plastic bags don’t exist here, so why the fee?”
Preparing for Change
On a recent morning, palettes with cases of plastic shopping bags stood outside Moisha’s Discount Supermarket in Midwood, with customers snapping up boxes of 1,000 bags for $40.
Though bulk sales will be allowed even after the ban takes effect, “customers are getting nervous and they’re already asking us for it, so we decided, why not sell them?” said a store employee.
Another Brooklyn supermarket owner, who asked not to be named, said he won’t be providing paper bags to his customers, as they cost him three times as much as plastic bags do.
“The customers will have to bring their own bags or buy reusable bags,” says the owner — effectively fulfilling the goal of the bills.
Meir Klein, vice president of sales at Magcrest Packaging, a bag wholesaler based in Monsey who sells shopping bags to stores across the state, says he has seen significant changes in his business since passage of the bill.
“One of my main suppliers, a manufacturer based in New York City, just closed its doors this month,” says Klein. “Also, in October, we placed an order with one of the largest paper manufacturers. After three months of delays, they canceled the order, saying they couldn’t keep up with the overwhelming demand for paper bags.”
Klein says he is shifting his clients to reusable bags or paper bags, but that those are impractical solutions. His company sells plastic bags for 3-10 cents and paper bags for 20-50 cents.
“There’s no way stores can bear that cost,” he says. “They’ll either have to start charging at least 20 cents per paper bag, or maybe raise prices of the items in the store. Otherwise, they’ll have to just stop using paper bags, and people will have to bring reusables — which is government’s ultimate goal. But for a city like New York, where people walk around, and sometimes make a shopping trip at the end of a long day, is it practical to carry a bunch of reusables around with you all day?”
In light of the new law, Magcrest will be focusing more on the food and industrial packaging segment of its business.
While environmental advocates say the plastic-bag ban is a means of getting rid of an unrecyclable nuisance, Klein argues, “Everything is actually recyclable — but you have to separate it properly.
“I’m all for recycling, and this law could have promoted proper recycling, rather than an ill-advised, arbitrary ban,” he says. “And certain plastics are compostable or biodegradable — the law could have promoted those. But the law was biased by uneducated environmentalists.”
When New York City enacted the paper-bag fee last April, following the state’s plastic-bag ban, Councilman Brad Lander noted that the bill passed just a few days before Earth Day and said advocates are “excited … to be taking another important step forward for the environment.”
But Heshy, the Boro Park father, says those who passed the bill “seem to worship the Earth instead of caring about their constituents.
“Hopefully,” he says, “people will be so outraged that the politicians will be pressured into abolishing this absurd law.”
On March 1, New York state will join more than 100 other U.S. jurisdictions that have imposed some sort of ban or fee on shopping bags. Here’s what you need to know:
The ban applies to all plastic shopping bags that are not reusable. “Reusable” means the bag can be used at least 125 times to carry a minimum of 22 pounds over a distance of 175 feet, and has a strap or handle that is separately attached and does not stretch with use.
The plastic-bag ban does not apply to bags:
— used to contain or wrap uncooked meat, fish, seafood, poultry, or other unwrapped food, flower, or plant items
— used to package items from bulk containers, like fruits, vegetables, candy or small hardware items
— containing food that is sliced or prepared to order
— containing a newspaper for home delivery
— sold in bulk quantities, and specifically prepackaged for bulk sale
— sold as trash bags or food storage bags (e.g. sandwich bags, zip-close bags)
— used as a garment bag, such as by a dry cleaner
— provided at a restaurant for takeout or delivery of food
— provided by a pharmacy to carry prescription drugs
A store that offers plastic bags prohibited by the law will receive a warning for the first violation, a $250 fine for the next violation, and a $500 fine for any subsequent violation in the same calendar year.
New York City (and several other jurisdictions) has enacted a 5-cent fee on paper bags.
Forty percent of the fees will be used by the city to provide free reusable bags, primarily to low-income residents; 60 percent will go to the state environmental fund.
The fee does not apply to:
customers purchasing items using food stamps or WIC
the State of New York and its agencies, the federal government and its agencies, or the United Nations.