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Enforcement of statewide plastic bag ban delayed one more month

Enforcement of New York’s plastic bag ban, which took effect Sunday, has been pushed off one month after an eleventh-hour lawsuit was filed challenging the legislation.

The lawsuit, filed Friday by an association of New York City bodega and deli owners, set out to sue the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The plaintiffs argued that regulations on which types of bags were banned were inconsistent with the 2019 adopted law. According to a court order, a lawyer representing the DEC agreed at a hearing that no fines in relation to the New York State Bag Waste Reduction Act would be imposed until April 1, giving businesses a one-month grace period on enforcement.

The long-standing plastic ban legislation has been on the table for some time, geared toward protecting the environment and marine life, eliminating waste and improving sustainability. With enforcement tentatively set to begin April 1, food establishments, grocery stores and local businesses will be required to cease use of plastic bags, with some exemptions, and charge 5 cents for every paper bag used. Exemptions include plastic bags used to contain or wrap uncooked meat, fish or poultry; those used by customers only to package bulk items such as fruit, vegetables, grains or candy; those used only to contain food sliced or prepared to order and those used only to contain a newspaper for delivery to a subscriber. For items sold in bulk to a consumer at the point of sale, the exemption applies, as it does to trash, food storage and garment bags. 

Additionally, prepackaged items for sale to customers may be in plastic bags and plastic bags provided by a restaurant, tavern or similar food service establishment to carry out or deliver food, as well as those provided by a pharmacy to carry prescription drugs are exempt. Consumers are encouraged to bring reusable bags with them for shopping. The New York City Department of Sanitation has offered free reusable bag giveaways since 2016, and has distributed roughly 70,000 since. Their reports have found that roughly 10 billion plastic bags are discarded in the city each year.

Some local businesses are now moving to charge for reusable bags, like Handy Pantry in Mattituck.

“We’re waiting on our paper company to produce something with our logo on it,” said James Jenkins, store operator at Handy Pantry.

According to the DOS, the city does not set prices for reusable bags, so vendors essentially have free rein over how they price reusable bags.

“The 5-cent deposit on plastic bags helped a lot as far as cutting back on bags, so it definitely seemed like that was productive,” Mr. Jenkins said, “because it did drastically make an impact there. The paper is a little tough … and you know, you get some people who understand and they’re happy. Some people are really upset. It’s just, any time you have any sort of change, you’ll deal with a certain amount of people who give you some tough feedback.”

Other grocers, like Riverside Village Market in Riverhead, are buying up and giving away reusable bags away for free.

“I ordered 2,000 reusable bags to give free to the customers,” said Jose Rodriguez, manager at Riverside Village Market. “I gave each customer maybe three bags, that way they have it. Each customer, I lose $3. I want to teach the customer to keep the bags.”

Mr. Rodriguez said he recognizes that the plastic bag ban is good for the environment. Now, he said, in addition to giving out reusable bags, he will be using paper bags, though he plans to limit use.

“If you want people to do something, hit them in the pocket,” Mr. Jenkins said, “but at the same time, you know, you get a lot of upset people too. It happens and it’s difficult, but guess what? Everywhere they go [in New York] they’re going to encounter the same problem … but they usually come around. Over time, people get used to it.”

At a press conference in Farmingdale Friday, members of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the state DEC and a number of other environmental and animal-centered groups gathered to “celebrate the death of the plastic bag” and discuss plastic waste’s real world impact.

“As an organization with decades of experience responding to marine mammals and sea turtles, Atlantic Marine Conservation Society has observed the horrific consequences of single-use plastics, like bottles, straws, and bags,” said Rob DiGiovanni, founder and chief scientist of Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. “Plastic bags,” he said, “pose a unique threat to sea turtles specifically as their movements in the water mimic that of jellyfish, a top food source for sea turtles.”

Mr. DiGiovanni explained how easily plastic bags can be ingested by wildlife, often leading to injury, illness and death. In addition to sea turtles, whales, dolphins, seals and many fish are also at risk, said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. Ms. Esposito made it a point to mention that New York State is one of the first to carry out a plastic bag ban.

“When we passed our carry-out bag law in Suffolk County, we learned that the public is ready and willing to be a part of the solution — as we reduced plastic bag use by over 80% in the first year,” said Suffolk County Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport). Mr. Spencer, like Friends of the Bay executive director Heather Johnson, expressed commitment to the statewide ban, arguing the efficacy of reduced plastic use across the county.

Eric Goldstein, NYC environment director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the ban “will result in less litter; cleaner streets, parks and waterways; and reduced global warming emissions.” This, he said, is an important beginning step to protecting the ecosystem and humankind.

Debate about how to approach plastic bags had been a local hot topic for several years. A Suffolk county bill was proposed in 2016 to ban plastic bags altogether, but it failed to gain support in the county legislature. Instead, starting Jan. 1, 2017, stores were required to charge 5 cents for every non-reusable paper or plastic shopping bag, with some exceptions.

“We need to do better,” said Mr. DiGiovanni. “We need to not only recycle but reduce our use of products that can be hazardous and life-threatening to the marine animals. We need people to opt for reusable bags.”