Governor Cuomo celebrated Earth Day this year by announcing legislation to ban plastic carryout bags across New York State. It’s encouraging to see the Governor make a concrete commitment to address bag waste – environmentalists have been waiting for action ever since he signed a preemption of New York City’s carryout bag fee last year and promised a statewide solution – but a plastic bag ban on its own won’t solve our problem.
Plastic bags understandably get a lot of attention when we talk about waste – they are an everyday fact of life, we see them blow across the sidewalk and get caught in trees, and we’ve all read disturbing stories about how much plastic ends up in the ocean and harms marine life. While it may be less obvious to consumers, plastic bags are also difficult and expensive for local governments to get rid of, which means there’s less money for other priorities. So why not just ban them? For one thing, if a ban isn’t implemented very, very carefully stores can just hand out thicker plastic bags by claiming that they’re “reusable” when they aren’t. In that case, we might be worse off than when we started. But even an effective plastic bag ban can incentivize consumers to use paper bags instead of reusable bags, and paper bags have problems of their own – they may be easier to recycle than plastic, but they’re more carbon-intensive to produce and they’re heavier, meaning it takes more diesel-fueled truck trips to get to stores than an equivalent number of plastic bags.
Fortunately, we have an effective example of how to deal with all kinds of bag waste in Suffolk County. Since January 1st, shoppers in Suffolk have had to pay a 5-cent fee for all disposable bags, paper or plastic. After just four months, 43% of shoppers have started using reusable bags and only 30% of shoppers were still using plastic bags. The statewide solution to bag waste in New York is clear – we can copy the Suffolk model and charge a small fee on all single-use bags, with the proceeds going to an environmental purpose, or we can ban plastic bags and charge a fee on all paper bags. Now that Governor Cuomo is committed to taking action on bags, we hope he will modify his bill so it will be as effective as possible at reducing single-use bag waste, whether that waste is paper or plastic.