On April 1, 2019, Governor Cuomo signed his budget into law and with it, a ban on the distribution of plastic bags by anyone required to collect sales tax unless explicitly exempted by the law. The effective date for the ban is March 1, 2020.
Due to errors in drafting literally in the middle of the night, the Governor instructed his Department of Environmental Conservation to clarify what a reusable bag is. On November 27, 2019, they initiated a 90 rulemaking process with proposed regulations. These regulations ban every plastic film bag from the ultra-thin bags at a convenience store to the thicker bags you would get at a higher-end retail store like Nordstrom.
This brings us to today. Eliminating these bags from the marketplace might sound nice in theory, but the availability of alternatives is both more costly as well as potentially scarce.
Availability of Bags:
The vast majority of plastic film retail bags are made here in the United States. And in the case of a “plastic bag ban” like California or Suffolk County, the higher quality, thicker, plastic film bags have filled the needs for retailers and customers. That is why there was not any sort of massive disruption in the marketplace for stores or customers.
Attached is the Freedonia Custom Research Report indicating the paper bag shortage that will soon rear its ugly head in New York without a fix. The best-case scenario in the report indicates that New York will need 1 billion more paper bags than are available in the Western Hemisphere. This New York Post article lays out the issue pretty well.
The typical reusable bags that you can buy for $1-2 are made from plastic, either polypropylene or polyester (PET, the same thing bottles are made out of). They are also made 100% overseas with most coming out of China and Vietnam. The Freedonia Report outlines the issues in the supply chain due to coronavirus that could impact availability in New York. The other question we will oftentimes get is, “Why can’t you make those bags here in the US?” I have attached a presentation that answers that question. They are all sewn by people sitting in front of sewing machines. We don’t have that anymore in the U.S. and if we had to pay workers $15 an hour, those bags would cost a lot more than $1-2.
Environmentalism of Bag Bans:
Every study that has been done looking at the life cycles of the different types of carryout retail bags has concluded that the plastic retail bag is the best option as long as you don’t litter it. Since we can all agree that nothing should be littered, it quickly calls into question the sustainability of these types of bag ban policies.
- Attached is a presentation that we just provided to members of the plastic bag task force in Wichita that I think will do pretty well to answer most of the negative talking points that you are likely to hear:
- “Plastic Bags are everywhere” – While yes, they are very visible when the wind grabs them, they are far from “everywhere.” In that presentation, you will see that plastic retail bags typically make up less than 1% of litter.
- “They are filling up our landfills.” Actually, according to the EPA data in that presentation, all plastic bags and sacks make up 0.3% of municipal solid waste in the U.S. That number includes things like garbage bags. Plastic retail bags make up a tiny fraction of that number. So no, they are definitely not filling up landfills.
- “They end up in our oceans and kill marine life.” – While we never want to see any of our products end up in a waterway, according to Ocean Conservancy beach cleanups, plastic retail bags make up roughly 1% of items picked up. But more importantly on this note, up to 95% of plastic going into the oceans come from 10 river systems in SE Asia and Africa. Less than 1% of it comes from the US and most of that is in the form of discarded fishing gear (buoys, nets, etc.). There is a good visualization that shows this in the presentation.
So what’s the compromise?
Why didn’t you hear about the chaos in California when the bag ban went into effect? Why weren’t their massive issues in Suffolk County? It’s because they allowed for durable plastic bags made here in the United States to be used for a small fee (5 cents in Suffolk and 10 cents in California).
The bags they allow in Suffolk County are 2.25 mils thick. This is a standard created by the environmental community and not the plastic bag industry. But we have adapted to be able to make those bags. In California, they are certified for reuse at least 125 times by the testing criteria standard they set forth. Did it work in Suffolk County? Don’t take our word for it, here’s the story of success: Suffolk plastic bag use down by 1.1 billion, report says. They reduced bag usage by 80-90%, while still providing low-cost options for shoppers.
Why can’t we just do that statewide? To date, the only reason it hasn’t been accepted is environmental organizations have said they want 100% of what they are asking for or they will take their ball and go home.
The Main Point:
This law misses the mark on sustainability, it forces stores to use bags that are more environmentally harmful and made overseas, it increases costs for retailers large and small, and most importantly it will increase the costs for grocery shopping for customers in the process. There needs to be a compromise.