Under an agreement reached as part of the state budget passed by lawmakers over the weekend, plastic bags will be banned in all New York retail stores starting next March. “You drive through urban areas in this state and you see plastic bags hanging from trees like some bizarre Christmas ornaments,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo told reporters on March 31. “You see in waterways all across this state, plastic bags.”
With the agreement, New York has become the second state to ban plastic bags (California was the first). State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach who heads the Environmental Conservation Committee, sponsored the bill that banned plastic bags. “We will score a big win for our environment and our future,” he said in a social media post shortly before the budget was approved.
All Our Energy, a Point Lookout-based group that strives to educate and empower the public to support renewable energy and act on environmental issues, has led a local movement in Rockville Centre and other communities over the last year to eliminate single-use plastic bag pollution.
The group has said that nearly 12.3 million plastic bags are used annually in Rockville Centre alone, and less than 5 percent get recycled, according to conservative Environmental Protection Agency estimates. “Bag It,” a film released in 2010 that documents the impact of plastic bags and other plastic consumer materials on land ecosystems and the marine environment, has also been shown around the village to raise awareness of the issue.
More than 2,600 people and 120 merchants in Rockville Centre signed All Our Energy’s pledge asking the village to take action to curb checkout bag pollution, according to a March news release. Village spokeswoman Julie Scully has told the Herald that the Board of Trustees was waiting for a statewide law.
Under the state’s plan, counties can opt to require a 5-cent fee on paper bags — 3 cents of which would go to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, used to expand New York’s Forest Preserve and restore historic sites. The other two cents would go to counties to purchase and hand out reusable shopping bags to residents. A spokeswoman for Nassau County Executive Laura Curran did not respond to a call for comment on whether Nassau would seek a 5-cent fee on paper sacks.
“We had hoped that the state would go all the way and move everybody to reusable bags, rather than just banning one kind of material,” George Povall, All Our Energy’s executive director, told the Herald on Monday. “But it’s a good step in the right direction, and we will continue to push the county to adopt the fee.”
Some municipalities have already sought to decrease the use of plastic bags in stores — Long Beach and the Village of Sea Cliff have implemented a 5-cent surcharge on the bags. In Long Beach, there has been a 75 percent reduction in the use of plastic bags in major supermarkets. Suffolk County also has a fee on plastic and paper bags.
Nassau County Legislator Debra Mulé, a Democrat from Freeport, had sought the same fee countywide, but the Republican majority blocked a vote on her legislation. Following the announcement that plastic bags would be banned statewide, Mulé said she would be dropping her bill.
“I’m happy there’s a ban on plastic bags — it’s great,” she said. Like other environmentalists, though, Mulé said she was disappointed the fee on paper bags would not be mandatory. “I’m unhappy paper bags are not addressed specifically by the state because they have their own effect on the environment,” she said. “I have to study the state’s bill further, but I’m going to propose legislation that will put a fee on paper bags like in Suffolk County.”
Povall said he and others are waiting to see how the state law will be finalized, noting that when other places have banned single-use plastic bags, retailers use a thicker plastic bag, which they consider reusable.
“The state needs to be a lot more clear of what they’re talking about — what a reusable bag is, what a plastic bag is and what everything else would be,” he said, adding that his goal is to eliminate checkout bag pollution of all kinds. “Whatever they’re going to use now, they’re still going to end up having to be dealt with. But reusable bags are pretty easy.”