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New Yorkers Still Confused on How Plastic Bag Ban Will Work

Shoppers at the McDonald Avenue ShopRite in Brooklyn gear up for the state ban on single-use plastic bags, Feb. 17, 2020.
Shoppers at the McDonald Avenue ShopRite in Brooklyn gear up for the state ban on single-use plastic bags, Feb. 17, 2020. Photo: Virginia Breen /THE CITY

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Less than two weeks before the state ban on single-use plastic shopping bags goes into effect, at least one Brooklyn supermarket was hawking reusable bags — made of thicker plastic.

“It’s kind of missing the point, no?” asked shopper Nikoletta Kutula, pointing to a bin of bright yellow bags selling for 10 cents at the McDonald Avenue ShopRite. “At home where I’m from, in Hungary, people know to bring their own bags. Not here. For here, it’s a big step.”

As the March 1 deadline for the law’s enactment draws near, some customers and clerks in city supermarkets and other shops seemed confused by the new rules.

New York will become the third state, after California and Oregon, to bar single-use plastic bags, though Hawaii effectively has a statewide ban since all its counties prohibit plastic.

The leadup to New York City’s rollout has been bumpy.

Some retailers are scrambling to get paper bags to sell for five cents a pop. Two cents of the fee goes to the city to fund the purchase of reusable bags for low-income residents and seniors, and the rest goes to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

But not everyone has to pay. The paper fee does not apply to recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.

Free reusable bags are available to city residents from the Department of Sanitation, in exchange for taking a “zero waste” pledge to reduce, reuse and recycle. The department, which says it collects roughly 10 billion single-use plastic bags a year, has distributed some 700,000 reusable sacks since 2016.

“In the three weeks prior to the ban/fee going into effect, we are working to distribute some 100,000 bags,” said Belinda Mager, a Sanitation Department spokesperson.

‘We’re Very Capable’

City Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) applauded the ban, and predicted shoppers would quickly adapt.

“We’re very capable,” Lander said. “We remember our wallets and purses, so we can get used to this, and in doing so, we’ll stop sending billions of single-use bags into our landfills and storm drains and into our oceans and up our trees.”

Some of shoppers’ confusion may stem from the ban’s long history.

Lander first introduced legislation to impose a fee on carryout bags in 2013. Three years later, the City Council passed a law to adopt a five-cent fee, “but Albany had other ideas,” Lander added. Gov. Andrew Cuomo eventually signed legislation pre-empting New York City’s law.

Brooklyn ShopRite advises customers to “plan for the ban.” Photo: Virginia Breen/THE CITY

Not all plastic bags are prohibited. The legislation exempts those used for deli meat and produce, as well as those for newspapers, pharmacy items and restaurant takeout food.

Stores also have to keep records describing the collection, transport and recycling of plastic collected.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, according to spokesperson Erica Ringewald, “will continue to focus its outreach and education efforts to ensure a smooth transition for consumers and affected retailers, with enforcement to follow in the months ahead.”

The law’s violation provisions state that after a retailer receives a warning, they will be liable for a penalty of $250 and then $500 for any subsequent infractions in the same calendar year.

Bags Off to Jersey

“The complaints have already started,” said grocery clerk David Diaz, who has worked at the Kensington ShopRite for nearly 20 years. “We’ve been letting customers know to bring their own bags, but some are getting really upset.

“They already abuse the system by taking lots of extra bags to use for picking up dog poop or the trash or whatever,” he added. “I tell them, ‘Hey, this isn’t for us, it’s for our children.’”

Diaz said his ShopRite had five pallets of paper bags ready to sell to customers after the ban goes into effect.

“It’s very confusing for all of us,” said Diaz’s supervisor, an assistant grocery manager who would only give his first name, Hugo. “For now, the bosses are pushing these sturdy plastic bags, but after March 1, we’re getting rid of those, too. They’re sending them to New Jersey.”

The New York law states that a bag can be considered “reusable” if it is capable of carrying 22 pounds over a distance of 175 feet for minimum of 125 uses and is either made of cloth or other machine washable fabric, or made of durable plastic that is at least 10 mils thick.

Tammy Siegel, 57, inspected the 10-cent reusable plastic bag at ShopRite and shook her head. A note printed on the bottom of the bag stated it was 2.25-mm thick and could carry “22 lbs over 175 ft during 125 reuses.”

“Believe me, I used to work for a plastics factory in Canarsie, and this bag is not going to last,” she said. “Look at the seam. It’s too rough and will split. You know how much oil went into making this bag?”

For Isaac Fisher, a 13-year-old yeshiva student shopping with his mom, banning plastics was a moral imperative.

“We are taught that we have an obligation to take care of the earth and the animals that God gave us,” he said. “I’m all for this. I cried at ‘Free Willy.’ I love animals.”

Unintended Consequences Feared

Critics say getting rid of single-use plastic bags may not lead to as big a drop in plastic use some hope.

A 2019 study published in the Journal of Environmental Economics & Management found that California’s elimination of 40 million pounds of plastic carryout bags was offset by a 12 million pound increase in trash bag purchases.

At city supermarkets, some shoppers seemed supportive while others called the ban a burden.

Robert Acevedo, 54, clutches his plastic bag after leaving a Fairway Market on Sixth Avenue and 26th Street in Manhattan. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

Robert Acevedo, 54, who bought a salad and unsalted peanuts at a Fairway Market in Manhattan Tuesday, held his items in a plastic bag after exiting the store. The bag ban would be an inconvenience, he said, especially for people in the disabled community.

“I could see on one side that it’s good for the environment, but I think they’re taking it too far,” said Avecedo, a disability advocate who uses an electric wheelchair.

When the ban goes into effect, he predicted,  “There’s going to be an uproar.”

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