For more than a decade, environmental activists have been trying to get New York to ban or restrict plastic bags.
That fight reached an important milestone on Thursday, when lawmakers agreed to a partial ban starting next March, according to the New York Times. At that time, stores won’t be allowed to give customers single-use plastic bags during the checkout process. Counties across the state will be able to opt into a program to charge 5 cents per paper bag going forward to raise revenue for the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, which would buy reusable bags for customers.
Environmental groups were quick to applaud the decision.
“Plastic bags pollute our oceans and bays, damage our stormwater infrastructure, litter our neighborhoods, and become entangled in our trees,” Jessica Ottney Mahar, New York policy director for the Nature Conservancy, said in an email statement. “The Nature Conservancy applauds Governor Cuomo and the State Senate and Assembly for coming to a budget agreement to ban plastic bags, which will reduce this source of wasteful pollution all across our state.”
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Business lobbies expressed concern that the new law will burden small companies with a steep expense, according to the Times.
However, numerous exemptions will be built into the law when it’s approved in the days ahead, including for takeout bags at restaurants, bags for bulk items and deli meats, and newspaper sleeves.
As a result, millions of single-use plastic bags will still be used annually in the state.
But the law will eliminate the vast majority of plastic bags that end up being used in the state. In New York alone, an estimated 9.37 billion plastic bags are discarded annually, and only 5% of plastic wraps in the US ever get recycled. The rest wind up in landfills, where they take hundreds of years to break down, or in ecosystems such as oceans.
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In recent years, awareness of the environmental consequences of plastic pollution has become widespread and governments around the world are beginning to take action to restrict plastic production.
More than 60 countries have taken action against single-use plastics, and the European Union recently passed a sweeping measure to ban single-use plastics such as cutlery, plates, straws, and more.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo first championed the plastic bag ban in early 2018, when he introduced legislation. Previously, he had killed an effort to enact a 5-cent tax on plastic bags.
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"The blight of plastic bags takes a devastating toll on our streets, our water, and our natural resources, and we need to take action to protect our environment," Cuomo said in a statement after introducing the ban. "As the old proverb goes: 'We did not inherit the earth, we are merely borrowing it from our children,' and with this action we are helping to leave a stronger, cleaner, and greener New York for all."