Albany bags plastics, as single-use sacks get the sack

In the bag: Governor Andrew Cuomo made several Earth Day stops around the state to ceremoniously sign a new law banning single-use plastic bags in New York.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

It tolls for thee, plastic bags.

Governor Andrew Cuomo rang the death knell Monday for single-use plastic bags in New York State – outlawed as of next March, even for holdouts content to spend a nickel per bag at the supermarket checkout.

No more, as of March 2020, when the single-use sacks – which “do not degrade and often wind up as litter on lands and in waters,” according to the governor’s office – go the way of the dodo in the Empire State.

Cuomo’s Earth Day announcement – delivered at multiple stops along a statewide tour, including one at LIU Post’s Brookville campus – was framed as a pollution-reducing, wildlife-protecting environmental innovation, with New York joining Connecticut and Hawaii as the only states to ban plastic bags.

Citing “tremendous damage” to the environment, the governor said the time has come for New York to prohibit the estimated 23 million plastic bags it circulates annually – half of which, he says, become litter.

“You see plastic bags hanging in trees, blowing down the streets, in landfills and in our waterways,” Cuomo said Monday. “Twelve million barrels of oil are used to make the plastic bags we use every year and by 2050 there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish.

“We need to stop using plastic bags,” he added. “And today, we’re putting an end to this blight on our environment.”

Water world: For Cuomo’s crew, the bag ban is a waterway win.

Cuomo didn’t reach these conclusions alone. Although some alternative studies suggest plastic bags are not a major environmental problem, the governor in 2017 created the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force, and the task force’s final report, delivered in January 2018, contained several legislative options for statewide solutions, including the ban.

To address the concerns of critics who say outlawing plastic bags disproportionately affects certain communities, the NYS Department of Environmental Contamination will work with community stakeholders in “low and moderate income and environmental justice communities,” according to the governor’s office, primarily through the distribution of reusable bags.

The new legislation – which gives the DEC “exclusive jurisdiction over all matters related to plastic bags,” the governor’s office noted – exempts garment bags, trash bags and bags used to contain fruits, meats and other foods (you can still put your chicken breasts in those difficult-to-open thin baggies).

But the law – which also allows counties and cities to charge a 5-cent fee for single-use paper bags – is still an environmental masterstroke, according to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, who chaired Albany’s Plastic Bag Task Force.

“New York continues to be a national leader on environmental issues, and the plastic bag ban is the latest in a series of important actions Gov. Cuomo has initiated to preserve our air, land and waters, and our future,” Seggos said. “DEC is proud to be at the forefront of these efforts … to develop solutions that benefit our environment and economy.”

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Rockville Centre), who chairs the Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee, called the new law a “bold action to protect our environment.”

“Together, we are making a decision to stop bags from clogging up our precious waterways, harming wildlife and littering our communities,” Kaminsky said in a statement. “With the signing of this legislation, we are making a huge stride in environmental stewardship.”

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-East Setauket), who heads the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, agreed that “plastic bags impose a very high cost on the environment” and noted that “toxic microplastics have even been found in the seafood we eat.”

“According to the World Economic Forum … there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050,” Englebright added. “Banning plastic bags is an important step in the reducing this pollution.”