plastic bags

The Great Plastic Bag Debate: Storied History, Uncertain future

By Liz Skolnick

It’s a familiar sight to most of us — plastic bags dancing in the wind on city sidewalks, dotting highway medians, accumulating in our kitchen cabinets. But as many of us have come to know, it’s the ones we don’t see that are doing the most damage. According to Ocean Crusaders, plastic bags are the number one man-made object sailors come across in the ocean. Fish, seabirds, and other animals often become entangled in them; other times, they mistake them for food, leading to starvation and death. And it will only get worse, as China’s ban on recyclable plastics goes into effect, as I wrote about last week.

While evidence of plastic’s destructive effects on marine and land habitats piles up, communities in many parts of the world, from Tanzania to Long Beach, are changing the way plastic bags are used in their local economies. Many have decided that the only way damage can be mitigated is to nix them altogether. Others have taken measures to discourage their use by attaching a fee to each bag consumers take home. These methods have proven effective in many places: Irish Environment reports that Ireland saw a 90% drop in the use of plastic bags once a fee was imposed in 2002; California and Hawaii have passed aggressive, statewide legislation to either ban or charge for plastic bags at retail stores, which has done much to reduce their proliferation. This may lead one to wonder, what’s the hold up in New York?


Though some municipalities in the state of New York have chosen to implement their own bag bans or fees, no statewide legislation has been put into place banning bags or requiring a fee. New York City has also been slow to put any such bans or fees into place. After a 6-cent fee was proposed by Mayor Bloomberg (and shot down) in 2008, legislation has been knocked back and forth in City Council. The “Plastic Bag Bill” proposed in 2014, required that a 5-cent fee be imposed for each plastic bag provided in supermarkets and most shops. With support from Mayor De Blasio, the bill passed by a relatively close margin of 28-20. The idea behind it was to urge shoppers to bring their own bags in order to avoid this new fee, while simultaneously reducing the number of bags that end up in landfill, sully urban and rural landscapes, the oceans, and even faraway islands now rimmed with “plastic beaches.” At the time, opposition to the bill argued that such a fee would unfairly burden low-income residents, and that reuse of bags was “unsanitary.”

In January 2017, one day before the NYC “Plastic Bag Bill” was set to take effect, the State Senate approved a bill that overrode it, and killed the bag fee. This new bill, introduced by Senator Felder of South Brooklyn, prohibited bag taxes in cities larger than 1 million people (NYC being the only city of this size in the state). The bill found support in Governor Cuomo, who argued that the fee, as it stood, was “deeply flawed” because it allowed merchandisers to keep the majority of the earnings, thus adding up to a “$100 million bonus to private companies.” Cuomo did, however, set up a Plastic Bag Task Force to investigate the bag ban and fee models in other states and communities.

Winter of 2018 saw a resurgence of interest in bag bans among state lawmakers and NYC officials, starting with new legislation introduced by two state Senators following on the recommendations of the Task Force, which looked to the “California model” as a beacon of success. In March, Mayor De Blasio tweeted his support for such a ban though he did not make specific mention of the new legislation. One day later, Gov. Cuomo chimed in to let the public know that he was considering a state-wide ban. The new bill, S7760, proposed by Senators Liz Kreuger and Brad Holyman, would ban plastic carryout bags and impose a fee for paper bags (10-cent minimum, to 25-cent maximum). Twenty percent of the fee would go to the retailer, while eighty percent would be set aside for the state Environmental Protection Fund. Because the fees would help support a state fund, rather than being collected by the city, it may be able to skirt the restrictions of Senator Felder’s bill.

This new bill, S7760 has been referred to the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, where hearings may be held and comments on its merit prepared for government agencies before the committee votes. Meanwhile in NYC, retailers and shoppers have chimed in voicing their dissent or support. Some feel banning plastic bags and charging for paper ones will cause confusion, anger and longer checkout lines, while others see this as a necessary step towards protecting the environment, and one that won’t unduly inconvenience anyone.


While NYC hangs in the balance, 14 municipalities in other parts of the state, frustrated with Albany’s back-and-forth, have taken matters into their own hands and enacted local bans and fees. Long Island towns are a standout — as of January 1st, Suffolk county stores have charged a nickel for a bag, paper or plastic; the village of Patchogue had already banned plastic bags in 2016. Southampton, East Hampton, and other towns have also enacted bans. In Nassau County, Long Beach has led the way.

While the door is open for a statewide plastic bag ban, given the erratic history of the debate in Albany, it’s almost certain to need a push from state residents in support of the measure. You can participate by supporting this legislation in a few different ways, such as calling or writing to your representatives, and participating during public commenting periods.