After New York State Bans Plastic Bags, Local Governments Decide Whether or Not to Charge a Fee for Paper Bags

In the recently adopted State budget, New York took a critical step to reduce plastic pollution in New York, banning most types of single-use plastic bags.

When it takes effect next March, the law will eliminate billions of plastic bags in New York each year, which will protect waterways, create cleaner streets and parks, and improve recycling systems that are often clogged by plastic bags. The law has several exemptions, such as take-out bags at restaurants, dry cleaning bags, bags for deli counter products, and plastic bags sold in bulk, like garbage and recycling bags. The new law also gives counties and cities the option to opt-in to a five-cent fee for paper bags, which would further reduce litter and solid waste pollution and substantially lower carbon emissions from producing paper bags.

Banning plastic bags without taking action to curb the use of paper bags would cause most shoppers to simply replace one type of environmentally harmful bag with another. While they aren’t made from petroleum like plastic, paper bags contribute to climate change, add to the solid waste stream, are difficult to recycle, and cost taxpayers and retailers money. Manufacturing paper bags is resource-, water-, and carbon-intensive.

Implementing a fee on paper bags would incentivize shoppers to make a habit of using reusable bags. The policy has already worked in New York State. Suffolk County implemented a fee on single-use bags last year, and as a result paper bag use decreased by 79 percent.

In New York, the money that is collected from the bag fee will go towards both the state’s Environmental Protection Fund and to localities for buying reusable shopping bags for residents in low-income areas. Some local governments in New York have already voted in favor of the fee, while others have either opposed it or are still deliberating. Here’s where several local governments in New York stand on the issue:

New York City Approves a Fee

Earlier this month, the New York City Council passed legislation to implement a five-cent fee on paper bags by a margin of 38-9, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has backed the measure. The City Council fast-tracked the legislation so that it could be implemented starting in March 2020, the same time that the state-wide ban on plastic bags will take effect.

In Suffolk County, The Fee Has Already Gone into Effect

The Eastern Half of Long Island is already a state-wide leader on this issue, as it implemented a five-cent fee on both paper and plastic bags in January 2018. A year later, the results have been outstanding. Last year, 1.1 billion fewer plastic bags were used than in 2017, and the number of bags polluting shorelines dramatically went down. When the state ban on most plastic bags is implemented next year, Suffolk County will keep its five-cent fee on paper bags, and pollution from bags will decrease even further.

Several Counties Opt-Out of the Fee

In the Nassau County Legislature, Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello has said that a fee on paper bags is “dead on arrival.” However, all nineteen seats of the legislature are up for reelection this fall, and a new group of legislators could take action on the issue before the state-wide plastic bag ban goes into effect next year.

Monroe Country, which encompasses the city of Rochester and several other towns, has opted out of the fee for now.

In Niagara County, a fee on paper bags was unanimously voted down by the county legislature.

Other Counties Remain Undecided on the Issue

In Erie County, which encompasses the city of Buffalo, Country Executive Mark Poloncarz has come out in support of a paper bag fee, but it is currently unclear whether or not it has enough support in the county legislature to pass.

In Westchester County, there is already support for the law as last year, legislators Kitley Covill and Nancy Barr proposed a fee on paper bags. The issue has not yet been taken up by the legislature, but it may attract more support now that the state government has given counties the option to opt-in to the fee.

In Albany County, Legislator Joanne Cunningham has also proposed a five-cent fee for paper bags, and the bill is currently in committee.

NYLCV strongly supports the implementation of paper bag fees and other policies that would reduce solid waste pollution in New York, and will continue to work with local governments to help pass and implement these policies.