Earth Week 2019: Fighting Plastic Pollution


This week, as the world celebrated Earth Day, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo (D-N.Y.) was at a signing ceremony for the statewide plastic bag ban that will go into effect on March 1, 2020. The new law seeks to drastically address some 23 billion single-use plastic bags New Yorkers use every year.  This is a win for advocates, conservationists and for our politicians who have been working hard on ways to legally protect the environment.

Did you know that plastic bags can't be recycled economically, and every year New York City spends $12.5 million sending 90,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills – that is, if they don't get trapped in trees or our waterways first.

So it started earlier this year, the state Legislature approved a ban on plastic bags, while the New York City Council passed a legislative package that includes a new 5-cent charge on paper bags as well as another law requiring mid-sized and large buildings to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

 Environmental organizations have long pushed a ban on plastic bags as a way to cut down on plastic pollution and encourage people to bring reusable bags when then shop. 

Earth Day Initiatives

It's nearly 50 years ago that Earth Day started on April 22, 1970 as a way to get everyday people thinking about the environment.  It was supported by both Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, conservative liberal, or progressive.  Millions of American went into the parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment, it was a powerful rally.  And by the end of that first year, Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  

All these years later, on Earth Day 2019, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation banning single-use plastic bags in New York, making the Empire State the third in the nation to pass such a law. 

“Just stop. Stop using the bags,” Cuomo said at the signing ceremony. “It's a plastic bag. Looks harmless enough. You can roll it up, put it into a little ball, almost make it disappear. But it is a major, major threat to the environment and it's long been getting worse.”

Ok, they are banned, but what does it really mean to our every day lives? Here's how it will all work, according to the new state law:

When does the ban take effect?   March 1, 2020.

Who is effected by the plastic bag ban?

New York's ban will apply to all single-use plastic bags provided by stores to carry out goods. It applies to any store that is required to collect sales tax, including groceries, retailers and small businesses. It does not apply to reusable bags with handles that are made of cloth or another durable material.

Are there any exceptions?

Yes. Under the state's ban, there are 11 instances where it's OK for a store to hand out a plastic bag, including when a bag holds:

Uncooked meat, fish or poultry

Bulk items

Sliced or prepared foods

A newspaper for delivery

Prescription drugs

There are also exemptions for bags sold in bulk, trash bags, food-storage bags, garment bags, prepackaged bags offered for sale and bags for carryout orders at restaurants and taverns.

 What about bags for cleaning up after your dog?

Sorry, dog owners — if you use plastic shopping bags to pick up after your pooch.... better stockpile or you'll have to rely on deli meat bags or carryout bags from restaurants.  You could buy plastic bags that are prepackaged or sold in bulk. Many retailers sell bags, some of them biodegradable, specifically designed for dog waste; those aren't affected by the ban.

What about paper bags?

They aren't banned, but counties and cities in New York will have the option to charge a fee on each paper bag.

How much is the fee?   5 cents per bag.

Why would counties and cities charge the fee?

Two reasons.One, some counties and cities could choose to charge the fee to try and cut down on paper waste and encourage reusable bags.Two, those local governments that do charge the fee will get to keep 2 cents for each bag. The remaining 3 cents goes to the state's Environmental Protection Fund.

Does everyone have to pay the paper-bag fee?

Almost everyone — so long as you're shopping in a county or city that opted in.The only people exempt from paying the paper-bag fee are those who receive SNAP or WIC benefits, since lawmakers were concerned the fee would unduly harm those with low income.

Want to know more what the city's politicians are doing to protect our environment?  Watch this episode of "Represent NYC" hosted Council Member Helen Rosenthal where she discuses how the New York legislators are implementing major initiatives and introducing trailblazing programs to protect NYC's climate.