It’s official: New York State has banned plastic grocery bags. The much-debated bag ban was passed by the state legislature as part of the annual budget, with the enthusiastic backing of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and goes into effect in March of 2020.
In a symbolic–and local–display of environmental concern, the governor signed the ban into effect on Earth Day, April 22, at the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston. Rivers large and small bear much of the brunt of plastic bag pollution, and at the signing, Cuomo remarked on the sad sight of bags floating in rivers and hanging from trees like “bizarre Christmas ornaments”:
“You’ll see them blowing down the street, you’ll see them in the beautiful Hudson River floating up and down the river,” Cuomo said. “Everywhere you go, you see them.”
Cuomo said that by 2050, it is estimated that there will be more plastic in waterways than fish by weight.
“How bizarre is that?” Cuomo said.
With the passage of the bill, New York becomes the second state in the nation to ban plastic shopping bags: California went bag-free in 2016.
A growing number of municipalities have enacted their own bans as well. In our own backyard, the village of New Paltz passed a bag ban in 2014, and Ulster County recently passed a ban on plastic bags and a 5-cent fee on paper bags that go into effect on July 15. In a similar spirit, the town of Woodstock recently passed a resolution asking local businesses to refrain from giving customers single-use plastic items like straws and cup lids unless they ask.
The New York State bag bill has several exemptions. Plastic produce and deli bags are still allowed. Restaurants can still use plastic bags. So can pharmacies. But at the checkout counter, customers will have soon have to choose between paper and bringing their own. Counties will be able to pass laws enacting fees on paper bags if they want to; three cents of every fee will go to the state Environmental Protection Fund.
Support for the statewide bag ban is something of a reversal for Cuomo. Just a few years ago, the governor blocked a move by New York City to enact a 5-cent fee on plastic bags. If enacted, the law would have allowed store owners to keep the fees collected.
Unsurprisingly, the ban has attracted opposition from large grocery chains. Wegman’s, a chain popular in Western New York, told lawmakers that without addressing the use of disposable paper bags statewide at the same time, the bill could worsen some of the environmental impacts of bags:
A plastic bag ban that doesn’t also address the use of paper bags is not a sustainable solution. Just one implication, and there are others: It takes 7 tractor trailers to transport the same number of paper bags as plastic bags carried by one tractor trailer.
Grocery store opposition to the bag ban might sound like corporate self-interest, but there is research backing up the idea that plastic bags are a lesser evil.
To compare the environmental impact of one product versus another, you need to decide what kind of impact you care most about. In the realm of litter, plastic bags are an obvious villain: They persist in the landscape for hundreds of years, make an unsightly mess, and break down into tiny indestructible scraps of plastic that wreak harm on river and ocean ecosystems. By contrast, paper bags decompose quickly and harmlessly, and reusable bags are not haphazardly discarded into the environment nearly so often.
But if your primary concern is carbon emissions, the calculus shifts. Researchers have compared paper, plastic and reusables on overall emissions, in an approach called “lifecycle analysis” that takes into account all of the resources consumed in making a product, from raw materials all the way through production, transportation, use, and disposal. On this metric, plastic bags come out ahead of paper–and sometimes, ahead of reusables as well.
One review of research from the University of Minnesota found that a paper bag had to be reused four times to be lower-emissions than one plastic bag. A reusable bag had to be used eleven times to meet the same standard. Even more depressingly, a recent Danish lifecycle analysis study found that a polyester bag had to be used dozens of times to break even with a plastic bag, and a cotton tote had to be used a whopping 20,000 times to come out ahead of single-use plastic.
In an interview with the campus magazine, chemistry professor David Tyler at the University of Oregon takes aim at the popular perception that cotton tote bags are good for the environment, pointing out that cotton consumes a tremendous amount of water and pesticides:
There are really good things about plastic bags—they produce less greenhouse gas, they use less water and they use far fewer chemicals compared to paper or cotton. The carbon footprint—that is, the amount of greenhouse gas that is produced during the life cycle of a plastic bag—is less than that of a paper bag or a cotton tote bag. If the most important environmental impact you wanted to alleviate was global warming, then you would go with plastic.
Since California enacted its 2016 bag ban, there is evidence to suggest that it may be having some unintended consequences. University of Sydney economist Rebecca Taylor, who has studied the impact of bag bans, found that both sales of heavier plastic trash bags and use of disposable paper bags skyrocketed in cities that had recently enacted bag bans.
On the other hand, bag bans are incredibly effective at cutting down on marine trash. Popular Science reports that since the state’s bag ban was enacted, California’s annual Coastal Cleanup Day has seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of plastic bag waste turning up as beach trash. Municipalities with bans have seen similar reductions in the number of plastic bags ending up in landfills and waterways.
Is New York on the right track? Taylor says fees are better than bans, according to a recent story from NPR’s Planet Money:
Taylor believes the recent legislation passed in New York is a bad version of the policy. It bans only plastic bags and gives free rein to using paper ones (counties have the option to impose a 5-cent fee on them). Taylor is concerned this will drive up paper use. The best policy, Taylor says, imposes a fee on both paper and plastic bags and encourages reuse.
What do you think of the statewide bag ban? How is your town or city dealing with plastic waste, and is it working?