York Professor Reacts to NY Ban on Single-Use Plastic Bags

Photo Credit: Newtown Grafitti via Flickr

By Rachel Dalloo

Retailers in New York will no longer be able to provide single-use plastic bags starting March 1, 2020. The state became the second in the country, following California, to pass a statewide ban on plastic bags in stores.

The ban, which was proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in April 2018, calls for retailers in NY to replace their plastic shopping bags with alternatives, like paper bags, which they charge customers a 5-cent fee per bag, if requested. Customers may also bring in their shopping bags as another alternative.

The law was part of the state’s $175 billion budget for 2020 that was passed in April.

“As an environmentalist scientist, I think the bag waste reduction law will force New Yorkers to recycle and this is good for the environment,” said Dawn Roberts-Semple, an assistant professor of Earth and Physical Sciences at York College. “Generally, plastic is not readily biodegradable, and studies have shown that it can release harmful chemicals which pose a threat to plants and animals, in both terrestrial and marine environments. Moreover, toxic chemicals released from plastic into the soil and groundwater, can be harmful to humans.”

Plastic is made from petroleum and does not break down organically. This had led to many bags polluting the sidewalks, waterways, and landfills, mainly harming wildlife. Alternatives, made from things like paper and cornstarch, are recyclable and compostable in facilities that generate enough heat to break them down.

California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags in the country in 2016. In the state, businesses can offer paper bags and thicker plastic bags for about 10 cents for each of those items.

If cities and counties opt for the 5-cent fee on paper bags in New York, 40 percent of the revenue would support local programs to buy reusable bags for low- and fixed-income consumers, and 60 percent of the revenue would support utilizing the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

“Some people may consider the ban an inconvenience or an imposition,” Roberts-Semple said. “There may have been a level of discomfort at first for consumers; however, I think we’ll get all used to the alternatives.”

There will be exemptions to the ban, including food carryout bags, dry cleaning, garbage bags and bags for fruits, vegetables and wrapped deli meats at the grocery store.

“I think the impact will be positive in the long run since there will be less litter; overall, it’s for a good cause,” she added. “Although I don’t imagine that store owners would be indifferent, I presume that manufacturers of plastic bags will not be happy.”

Following the state-wide ban, New York City has taken the latest step in its battle against plastic by banning single-use plastic utensils like forks, spoons and cups in city agencies. On May 1 Maine became the first state to ban styrofoam food containers beginning in 2021.

A printed version of this story had quotations that Dr.Robert-Semple wanted to change recently. The corrections have been made in this story to reflect that. 3/11/2020

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