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New York's plastic bag ban effectively on hold for now

File photo

New York state’s plastic bag ban took effect on March 1, but like much of society, it is now on “pause” as supermarkets and retailers that remain open grapple with other issues related to the coronavirus pandemic.

But advocates of the ban and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation say it will get back on track.

Environmentalists viewed the prohibition of single-use plastic bags as a victory, but the pandemic has delayed its full implementation. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has put regulation of the law on hold until June 15 at the earliest.

Some grocery stores are no longer permitting shoppers to bring in their own reusable bags, fearing they could be a way of spreading the virus, and other stores are once again offering plastic bags.

Judith Enck, who was an Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator under President Barack Obama, now runs the Beyond Plastics program at Bennington College in Vermont. She said the delay is a step backward, but she expects the new law to ultimately survive.

“I hope this is a temporary pause,” Enck said.

She said the health of the grocery store workers is the most important consideration right now. But Enck said there is no scientific data linking the spread of the virus to reusable bags. She says there is data, though, that indicates the virus can live on plastic for up to three days.

“The science just does not back up shifting to plastic bags,” she said. “But everyone is trying to make the best of a really difficult situation, and I fully appreciate that.”

She said there is plenty of evidence that single-use plastic bags are harming the environment.

“Every year, 23 billion plastic bags are used in New York state,” she said. “Even delaying the law by a month or two months or three months means that billions more plastic bags enter the environment.”

She said many of the bags end up as litter in trees, parks, rivers and oceans. Only 5% of the bags are recycled, she said.

Erica Ringwald, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the ban is in effect, but the agency will not begin enforcing it until mid-June at the earliest. That’s largely because of the pandemic, but also because a plastic bag manufacturing association and a bodega association filed a lawsuit in late February. The legal action is stalled due to the partial shutdown of the courts.

Ringwald said for now, the agency is trying to educate shoppers about the change.

“We continue to encourage New Yorkers to transition to reusable bags when they shop,” Ringwald said. “And we are also encouraging folks to use common-sense precautions to keep their bags clean.”

The DEC’s website has some tips on how to do that.

Ringwald said the DEC is aware that some stores have banned reusable bags or gone back to using plastic bags. Some stores have had trouble sourcing enough paper bags due to supply disruptions related to the pandemic. She said the agency is in “communication” with those store chains.

Enck said one option for now is for shoppers to pack their own reusable bags so checkout workers don’t need to come in contact with them. Some stores have already adopted that policy.

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.