Concerns Over Plastic Bag Ban from Both Sides

Supporters of ban think it doesn't go far enough. opponents are looking for alternatives

Tom Puckett
February 19, 2020 - 4:00 am

Plastic bags in a grocery cart. January 14, 2019 (WBEN Photo/Mike Baggerman)


Buffalo, NY (WBEN/AP) On March 1, single use plastic bags will be outlawed in New York's grocery and other stores. While opponents are scrambling, supporters say it doesn't go far enough.

Judith Enck, former EPA administrator now with Beyond Plastics, says the state’s new regulations include a loophole that could allow stores to skirt the ban by handing out plastic bags thick enough to be considered suitable for multiple uses.

“It is a giant loophole which they should close in the future,” says Judith Enck. “It’s not good for the environment if you go from thinner plastic bags to thicker plastic bags.” She says she had a recent conversation with the DEC. "They said, don't worry no one is making those thicker plastic bags. They're expensive, no one will hand them out for free, but we heard the same thing about iPhones. We all now have them in use 24 hours a day."

The regulations allow stores to hand out plastic bags if they are washable, can be used at least 125 times, carry 22 pounds (10 kg) over at least 175 feet (53 meters), and have an attached strap that doesn’t stretch with normal use. Regulators also proposed that any reusable plastic bags be at least one-hundredth of an inch thick. That’s thicker than required in California, which also limits the use of single-use plastic bags.

A spokesman for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the ban last year, dismissed concerns about the regulation being too flexible.

“These groups should stop promoting baseless conspiracy theories and focus their efforts on helping New Yorkers transition to re-usable bags,” spokesman Jason Conwall said.

Enck is encouraging people to get reusable bags instead. "A lot of them are not expensive. The New York City Department of Sanitation is giving them out," says Enck.

Jim Calvin of the New York State Association of Convenience Stores says his group fought the good fight against the ban, but lost, and now it's time to implement the new law as best as possible. Calvin says owners of small convenience stores are also feeling “anxiety” about having enough paper bags to go around by March 1. "Our member stores are finding a shortage of paper bags and they're not necesarily going to be able to find a quanitty of paper bags to replace plastic bags," says Calvin. 

He says all sides will have to work together to get through a learning curve that will be bumpy. "Whether that bumpy period lasts a week, a month or a year, I don't know," says Calvin.

Matthew Hamory, a managing director in the retail practice at AlixPartners LLP, said it’s unclear how exactly the ban will impact the market for paper bags, though it is clear that “New York will be adding an enormous amount of retail outlets who are using paper bags.”

Plastic bag manufacturers are also calling for New York to delay or weaken its ban because of concerns over the supply of multiuse bags.

“Retailers who typically buy their bags months in advance are staring down the barrel of implementation that they just cannot comply with,” said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said his agency is aware of concerns about paper bag shortages and has purchased over a quarter-million reusable bags the state will give out to food pantries and shelters.

“The industry has known this has been coming for 10 months,” he said.

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