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New York state lawmakers passed a ban on single-use plastic bags. (Photo: Brenda Lucena/Flickr/cc)

'Massive Win for the Environment': New York State Bans Single-Use Plastic Bags

"At long last, our trees and storm drains won't be clogged with plastic bags."

Jessica Corbett

In a move celebrated by activists as a "massive win for the environment," New York state lawmakers agreed to ban most single-use plastic bags statewide as part of a $175.5 billion budget deal announced Sunday.

New York is the third state to outlaw plastic bags. California voters ratified a state law in 2016, and all of Hawaii's counties have enacted similar regulations, effectively banning plastic bags statewide.

New York's legislation, "part of the Transportation, Economic Development, and Environmental Conservation budget bill, passed in the Assembly 100 to 42, and Senate 39 to 22," Bloomberg Environment reported Sunday, citing unofficial vote tallies.

Beginning March 1, 2020, grocery stores, retailers, and superstores will no longer be allowed to dispense plastic bags to customers. Per Bloomberg, "It does not affect bags used for restaurant carryout orders, those used to package things like raw meat or produce, or provided by pharmacies to carry prescription drugs."

The legislation, according to a statement from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office, "allows counties and cities to opt in to a five-cent fee on paper bags, with 40 percent of the revenue supporting local programs to buy reusable bags for low and fixed income consumers, and 60 percent of the revenue supporting programs in the state's Environmental Protection Fund."

State residents with low incomes who receive assistance from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—often called food stamps—or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) will be exempt from the fee.

Cuomo introduced a bill to ban plastic bags last year, after blocking New York City's proposed five-cent fee on them in 2017, which infuriated city leaders and environmentalists. The governor said in Albany on Sunday that he is "very excited" about the new legislation, which he called "long overdue."

"Two years, and about 20 billion plastic bags later, we are happy that the state legislature and the governor are finally taking action," New York City Council Members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, who fought for the NYC bag fee, said in a statement. "At long last, our trees and storm drains won't be clogged with plastic bags."

"But the job, it appears, is not yet complete. In California, the state legislation banning plastic bags also included a statewide fee on paper bags," added Lander and Chin. "Without a fee, many shoppers simply switch to paper bags, which have their own adverse environmental impacts."

While acknowledging that "banning the plastic bags is a good start," New York Public Interest Research Group policy director Liz Moran explained to Bloomberg that "paper bags are very water intensive, they're carbon intensive, and so consequently we have a lot of similar concerns to plastic bags with paper."

Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, agreed the paper bag fee should be mandatory. The fact that it's optional makes the legislation "a weak response to the scourge of disposable bags," he told the New York Times. "New York had a chance to show real leadership and came up short."

Though there remains room for improvement, the legislation was still welcomed as a major step in the right direction for the nation's fourth most populous state.

As news of the pending deal began circulating last week, Greenpeace celebrated on Twitter and urged other governments to follow suit:

New York's bag ban comes as study after study warns that plastic pollution poses a mounting threat to both human health and the environment. Under pressure from environmental campaigners, the European Parliament last week approved sweeping legislation to ban various single-use plastics—including cotton buds, cutlery, and straws—across the continent by 2021.

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