On Oct. 19, more than seven months after the law took effect, New York State’s environmental agency will begin enforcing a ban on single use plastic bags at grocery stores and other retailers.
The law banning the single use bags was to have taken effect on March 1, with a grace period before actual enforcement began, but the COVID-19 pandemic, and an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by the plastics industry, delayed its implementation.
Department of Environmental Conservation Commission Basil Seggos says that changes in October. “New York State will begin enforcing the ban on Oct.19,” Seggos said in a video on the agency’s website.
Retailers face penalties of up to $250 for each violation of the law and up to $500 for a second violation if it occurs in the same calendar year.
Seggos says New Yorkers use a “staggering” 23 billion plastic bags a year and 85% end up in landfill or as litter, and enforcement of the law will go a long way toward reducing those numbers.
Liz Moran, environmental policy director with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says the action has been a long time coming.
“We’re very pleased,” said Moran. “This is a very important law”.
The plastics industry predicts that the new law won’t work, because stores have limited options for providing alternatives to the bags. Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, said in a statement that the law “remains broken” and that the DEC is trying to “force a square peg into a round hole."
Earlier this year, plastics manufacturers predicted a paper bag shortage would occur once major grocery chains and other retailers make the switch. It’s unclear whether that has actually occurred.
Moran says there’s a solution for shoppers: they can bring in their own reusable bags.
“The best thing to do is to educate consumers about reusable bags,” said Moran, “and to make sure that people bring reusable bags to the stores with them.”
Early on in the pandemic there was concern that the virus could be easily transmitted on surfaces, but new CDC data shows that is less likely and that airborne transmission is more common. Moran says if cashiers are uncomfortable handling people’s reusable bags, then shoppers should respect those worries and pack the bags themselves.
“Understandably, people want to act in an abundance of precaution, they don’t want to spread this horrible illness,” said Moran, who adds that many shoppers are already packing their own reusable bags at stores and it seems to be “working fine.”
Moran says she has faith that the DEC is serious about enforcing the law and predicts it will have a “huge impact.”
Others aren’t waiting for the agency to act. Judith Enck, a former EPA Regional Administrator and head of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College, says the DEC does not have the staff to inspect every store, and is urging shoppers to report violations that they might witness, once the Oct. 19 enforcement date.
She says Beyond Plastics would also like to hear about potential violations, so that they can track whether there’s a pattern with a particular retailer, and whether the state environmental agency followed through correctly. She says the results will be made public.
“If there’s a large chain, for instance, that’s not complying, we’ll call them first and ask why, and then we’ll publicize the results,” Enck said. “Stores have had along time to prepare for this.”
She credits some grocery chains that have proactively ended using plastic bags.
The DEC is also asking shoppers to reach out to the agency directly, if they witness violations and want to make a complaint, after the enforcement begins on Oct. 19.