Statement of City Council Member Brad Lander on Governor Cuomo’s Announcement of His Bill to Ban Plastic Bags

Statement of City Council Member Brad Lander on Governor Cuomo’s Announcement of His Bill to Ban Plastic Bags

April 23, 2018

If Governor Cuomo has actually gotten serious about reducing the billions of plastic bags that New Yorkers send to landfills each month, it would be great news. But this looks like election-year Earth Day politics.

The governor’s ‘program bill’ has no legislative co-sponsors, and was introduced after the governor’s budget leverage is gone, and with Simcha Felder -- well-known lover of plastic bags -- in the catbird seat in the State Senate. So there’s no reason to believe it will go anywhere.

Last year, the Governor killed NYC’s plastic-bag law. Now, he’s proposing legislation that would kill effective policies that have gone into effect in Suffolk County, New Castle, and other localities across the state.

A plastic bag ban with no fee on paper bags sounds good -- we’d all prefer to get something for nothing -- but it’s bad environmental policy. It will not reduce solid waste, because it gives no incentive for people to switch to reusable bags. At best, it will lead to a massive increase in paper bags, most of which are not recycled. Retailers will be hit hard, since paper bags cost five times as much as plastic bags. When Chicago and Hawaii tried to implement plastic bag bans recently, stores simply found a way around them, giving out thicker plastic bags by claiming they were reusable. Chicago and Honolulu recently scrapped their bans in favor of a fee on all carryout bags.

To understand why a straight ban is bad policy, you can read this analysis by Jennie Romer, a national expert of plastic bags. Or, you can read the long list of “cons” from the Governor’s own New York State Plastic Bag Task Force Report (copied below, from page 20 of the report).

If the Governor is serious, he should join forces with NYS Senators Liz Krueger and Brad Hoylman, and NYS Assembly Environment Chair Steve Englebright, and support their recently-introduced bill to combine a statewide plastic bag ban with a small fee on paper bags.

In cities, states, and countries all over the globe, a small fee has helped the vast majority of people start bringing reusable bags the vast majority of the time. New Yorkers can do the same. We don’t need cheap election-year politicking.

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“Cons” on a standalone plastic bag ban, from Governor Cuomo’s New York State Plastic Bag Task Force Report (p. 20):

  • The current plastic bag and plastic film law will need to remain in place to provide for collection of non-covered plastic bags and plastic film.

  • No reduction in waste generation of single-use paper bags, which have their own environmental impacts.

  • Only provides a partial incentive for using reusable bags as single-use paper bags will still be allowed.

  • Does not incentivize reducing single-use paper bag use.

  • Costs to retailers will increase as paper bags will still be expected to be offered as an option for consumers and the cost to retailers of paper bags is three to five times as much as single use plastic bags. Alternatively, retailers would be put in the position of electing to charge customers the extra cost which could place them at a competitive disadvantage.

  • Consumers must use alternative containers for product transportation which, if not offered for free, is an additional cost to consumers and could adversely impact low and fixed income consumers.

  • Many municipalities report an increase in paper bag use after plastic bag bans go into effect and therefore, the allowable alternatives should be an environmentally preferable and sustainable options.

  • Definitions in the law for acceptable reusable bags become highly critical for proper implementation.

    • Reusable bags that meet the minimum thickness requirements specified in laws have generally been a thicker version of a single-use plastic bag (up to 5 times the amount of a commonly distributed thin single-use plastic bag), and as with thin single-use plastic bags, are often not used again for transportation of goods from a store but instead as a homeowner’s waste basket liner for trash and simply disposed after perhaps only one additional use.

  • Definitions in the law for acceptable biodegradable and/or compostable bags becomes highly critical for proper implementation.

    • It has been suggested that bag laws should not include biodegradable bags as an allowable alternative because standards and regulations do not exist regarding the term biodegradable.

    • It has also been suggested that compostable bags should only be included as an allowable alternative if they meet the ASTM D6400 standard for commercial compostability; however ASTM D6400 compostable bags should not be included as an allowable alternative in areas that do not have access to commercial composting because these bags will simply end up being landfilled and will not break down.

  • There will be a need to continue to implement a recycling system for non-covered bag plastic film. This is important, as More Recycling Associates reported in March 2017 at least 1.2 billion pounds of post-consumer film was diverted from the waste stream and recycled in 2015.

  • The American Progressive Bag Alliance has stated that bag manufacturing employs approximately 3,000 people in New York State.

  • Retail associations oppose straight bans because the allowable alternatives cost stores more money.

  • There is a higher potential for stolen goods when shoppers use reusable bags, which is a concern for any store.

  • Plastic bag bans do not always equate to reduction in plastic bag use. In many areas, bans include bags that are less than a certain thickness. A common thickness in single-use plastic bag laws is 2.25 mils of flexible plastic. Retailers end up purchasing plastic bags that are over the minimum thickness that qualify as reusable and hand them out at checkout for free. In these cases, there is not an actual reduction in single-use plastic bag use and the increased thickness of the bag can result in the same or potentially increased amount by weight of plastic.

    • Areas with plastic bag bans also see an increase in paper bag use, which could potentially be a less environmentally preferable option.

    • When the City of San Jose had a straight single-use plastic bag ban without a fee on the allowable alternatives, reusable flexible plastic bags were available at checkout for free and distribution doubled. San Jose then proposed a minimum 10-cent fee on these reusable bags.

    • The success of Chicago’s fee came after they repealed their single-use plastic bag ban. Their original single-use plastic bag ordinance was specific to banning single-use plastic bags of a certain thickness, so stores simply purchased the thicker 2.25 mil or greater flexible plastic bags and the original ordinance failed to reduce the number of single-use bags being used and increased the amount of plastic being disposed.

      • This same issue is why the City of Honolulu, Hawaii switched from a ban on single use plastic bags to a fee on single-use plastic bags.

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