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Where Are We on New York's Plastic Bag Ban?

CAT SMITH, HOST: Back in 2019, the state legislature passed a ban on plastic bags in grocery and retail stores. The ban was supposed to go into effect last March. But as Hayley Zhao reports, just like with so many other parts of our lives the pandemic slowed it down.

HAYLEY ZHAO, BYLINE: At H Mart on Broadway and 110th, when customers check out, the cashier asks if they want a bag. But no more plastic bags. Customers buy paper bags for five cents each, but many bring reusable bags. Alexis Goldsmith is the national organizing director of the environmental group Beyond Plastic. She said when the pandemic began, there were questions about the safety of reusing bags.

ALEXIS GOLDSMITH: We didn't know whether coronavirus traveled on surfaces. We since have found reusables are safe and coronavirus doesn't live as long on cloth as it does on plastic.

ZHAO: Also, before it went into effect, plastic bag manufacturers and bodega owners brought a lawsuit, claiming the ban was unconstitutional and would burden small businesses. In August the lawsuit was struck down and the ban was enforced in October. It’s difficult to assess how effective it’s been. According to the Freedom of Information Law request obtained by Beyond Plastic, the city has only issued 38 written warnings to stores for violation. Goldsmith says it may just take a while for stores to make the change.

GOLDSMITH: There're stores that have thousands of plastic bags still that they need to get rid of. Just because the ban has been enacted doesn't mean that we can give up on getting plastic bags out of state.

ZHAO: The bag ban also specifically excludes restaurants, which can still use single-use plastic bags, utensils and condiments for take-out and delivery….there’s been a big increase in the year of the pandemic. Michael Oshman is the founder of the Green Restaurant Association. He says that restaurants should cut back on single-use plastic.

MICHAEL OSHMAN: Many customers, they're getting this food delivered at their home. Well, guess what they have at their home? Reusable metal utensils.

ZHAO: A proposed amendment to add restaurants to the ban was introduced last month in the State Legislature. Dr. Steven Cohen, environmental science and policy professor at Columbia University says we may not see a lot of enforcement early on because the purpose of the ban is really to raise awareness.

STEVEN COHEN: In New York city people's attitude toward garbage is, uh, is casual. So you have to build a kind of cultural support for these kinds of things and getting people aware of the bags are carrying things in is one part of that process.

ZHAO: State legislators are taking additional steps to counter the rise of plastic waste. One proposed bill passes the expenses of collecting and recycling plastics back to manufacturers.

Hayley Zhao, Columbia Radio News.


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