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Supporters and opponents find fault with new state regs on plastic bag ban

WBFO file photo

The state’s ban on most single use plastic bags takes effect March 1. Over the holiday weekend, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s environmental agency released regulations on how to carry out the new law, but the new rules have left both environmentalists and the plastics industry fuming.

It’s the second time that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation chose a holiday to introduce rules that will effect most New Yorkers. The draft regulations for carrying out the plastic bag ban were released on Thanksgiving Eve.

The plastic manufacturing industry, which is against the ban, says the agency has not done enough to promote the transition. Matt Seaholm, with the American Recyclable Bag Alliance, which is part of the Plastics Industry Association, predicts a rocky transition.

“They’re going to have a mess on their hands when this really goes into effect,” said Seaholm, who predicts lawmakers will have to revise the statute. “There’s going to be some clean up on aisle three.”

Larger chain grocery stores are aware of the change. Many have done their own promotions, with signs informing customers of the change, and offering discount prices on reusable bags. But Seaholm says smaller stores don’t have the resources to do that.

Paper bags are still permissible under the new law, but Seaholm predicts there will be a shortage of paper bags, as production of the bags has fallen off in recent years. He says it takes 3-5 years to begin a new paper processing plant.

And he says the coronavirus may lead to a shortage of reusable bags. He cites an industry-sponsored study that finds virus related quarantines in Asia could lead to supply chain disruptions.

“100% of those bags are overseas, predominately China and Vietnam,” Seaholm said.

Supporters of the ban say the plastic industry’s warnings are overblown. Liz Moran, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, agrees that the state’s environmental agency has not done enough to publicize the new law.

“It’s no secret that a lot more needs to be done,” Moran said.

Moran says she’s concerned that the environmental agency may have inadvertently created a loophole for thicker types of single use plastic bags to be sold. The DEC regulations say bags that are thinner than 10 mils are not allowed. A mil is 1/1,000th of 1".

Judith Enck, the founder of Beyond Plastics at Bennington College and a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, says she worries that plastic manufacturers could seize the opportunity to make and sell a new kind of bag, which would defeat the whole purpose of the law. She likens it to what the public believed about iPhones a decade ago.

“iPhones were expensive and they weren’t that common,” Enck said, “and now our hands are permanently attached to iPhones.”

The Assembly sponsors of the law wrote a letter to the DEC saying the regulations, including the thickness provision,  “undercut the effectiveness” of the law. Assemblymember Steve Englebright, chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee, says the DEC is substituting its own judgement for that of the legislature.

Sean Mahar, a spokesman for the DEC, says they used the 10 mils measurement because it is an industry standard used to define the cut off point between a single us plastic bag and the thicker kind of plastic used for things like building construction.

“Anything below 10 mils is what is considered film plastic,” Mahar explained. Film plastic is what is used to make the single use bags.

“It will not be allowed under these regulations,” Mahar said.

Seaholm calls the 10 mils rule a “distraction” and he says a bag that thick would be too expensive to make and sell.

Mahar says he has not seen any evidence of a shortage of paper bags or reusable bags. He says the agency is stepping up its efforts to get the word out through ads that have begun running on TV stations and underwriting on public radio.

“We’ve got a big social media presence that’s going on, we have many videos that are on line,” said Mahar, who said the DEC website also provides a lot of information and tips for how to cope with the transition.

The environmental agency is giving stores and shoppers a grace period to adjust to the new law, and they say it will be a few months before they begin enforcing the ban. After that, businesses will be subject to a fine of $250 for the first offense and $500 for every time afterwards.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.