ALBANY — Environmental activists descended on the state Capitol on Friday to emphasize their concerns with the proposed regulations on the plastic bag ban.
Scheduled to take effect March 1, the law places a ban on single-use plastic bags and gives municipalities the option of putting a 5-cent tax on paper bags. Spearheaded by Environmental Advocates of New York, New York Public Interest Research Group and former EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck, a group of more than 60 environmental organizations called for the regulations proposed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to follow the intent of the law, in a letter delivered to the Capitol on Friday afternoon.
Riverkeeper Legislative Advocacy Manager Jeremy Cherson said there are about a dozen issues with the regulations, ranging in minor language discrepancies to more serious concerns.
Cherson identified four major concerns that Riverkeeper has with the proposed regulations.
“The law allows for plastic bags 10 mil or thicker,” Cherson said. A mil is a unit that represents one-thousandth of an inch.
“There is a big difference between that and 4 mil or 2 mil, which is what other jurisdictions, other states, counties and cities, have set as their threshold,” he said.
Additionally, 10 mil is just above the threshold for what most machinery can make, which makes the regulation costly for manufacturers, Cherson said.
Riverkeeper is calling for a no-film plastic standard, Cherson said.
“It makes it a lot easier for everybody,” he said.
The section regarding bag thickness is regarding requirements for reusable bags. The requirement for non-plastic reusable bags is a minimum fabric weight of 80 grams per square meter, according to the law.
Enck described the 10 mil regulation as a “monumental mistake.”
“The DEC thankfully has time to change [this] before the law takes effect in March,” Enck said.
NYPIRG Environmental Policy Director Liz Moran agreed.
“Plastic bags are plastic bags,” she said. “To maintain New York’s status as a climate champion, DEC must ensure regulations follow the intent of the law and won’t allow the distribution of plastic bags, regardless of thickness, starting March 1.”
Environmental Advocates of New York Deputy Director Kate Kurera echoed similar remarks.
“Unfortunately, DEC has proposed regulations that undermine the intent of the law, which is to ban plastic carry-out bags, by opening the door to plastic bags of a certain thickness,” she said.
These thicker plastic bags could potentially end up sharing a fate similar to the single-use plastic bags that are being banned, the activists wrote in their letter to DEC.
“This change would allow stores to distribute for free or sell thicker plastic bags that are nearly identical to single-use plastic carry-out style bags that consumers are already familiar with and accustomed to disposing of after one use,” according to the letter. “Most consumers will not use these thicker plastic reusable bags. The thicker bags will simply end up in all the same problematic places as their thinner counterparts.”
Riverkeeper also has reservations regarding proposed exemptions.
“The law would enable DEC, on a case-by-case basis, to exempt stores where there was no reasonable or practical alternative to plastic bags,” Cherson said. “We don’t believe there should be an exemption for stores.”
If DEC is going to have such discretion over granting exemptions, Riverkeeper wants to see public notices issued and a period for public comment before such an exemption is granted, Cherson said.
Because restaurants are exempt from the law, another concern is that corner stores, food marts, convenience stores, bodegas and other places that serve hot food may not be covered under the law, Cherson said.
“It appeared to us that there could be a loophole that would allow [these stores] to not comply because they could be interpreted as restaurants, which are exempt,” he said. “Our main goal is to see as many stores and as many plastic bags covered by the law [as possible].”
Other exemptions under the law include bags to wrap uncooked meats and seafood; package items from bulk containers such as fruits and vegetables; package food sliced to order; package newspapers for delivery; bags that are sold in prepackaged pre-sealed boxes; sold as trash bags; sold as food storage bags; used as garment bags by dry cleaners or laundry services; provided by a restaurant for takeout food; provided by a pharmacy for prescriptions; a reusable bag as defined by the regulations; or a film plastic bag for which there is no other alternative for storing the items, according to the regulations.
The plastic bag ban in Ulster County, which began in July, has been effective, Scenic Hudson Director of Public Policy Andy Bicking said.
“Reality has proven that folks have adapted to it and it has been effective at reducing litter in our communities,” he said.
Ulster County opted to add the 5 cent paper bag tax, while Greene County lawmakers opposed the idea.
Retailers can also choose to set fees of their own. Hannaford and Price Chopper are among the chains to announce that they will be charging 5 cents for paper bags.
After the law takes effect, Riverkeeper will continue to advocate against plastic pollution.
Each year, Riverkeeper does cleanup events along the Hudson River, Cherson said.
“The amount of plastic we find from New York City to the Adirondacks is staggering,” he said. “We will still be advocating for even greater coverage of more plastic items, to aid the transition to biodegradeable and reusable items.”
New Yorkers use an estimated 23 billion plastic bags each year, according to a release from the environmental advocates.
The New York City Department of Sanitation estimates that it collects about 1,700 tons of plastic bags per week, which cost $12.5 million per year, according to the release.
Single-use plastic bags are used for an average of 12 minutes, according to the letter.
“Before being discarded to be buried in a landfill, burned in an incinerator — which pollutes our air and harms public health — or littered on land or in water where they will break into smaller and smaller pieces over hundreds of years,” according to the letter.
Nine million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, according to the letter.
The public comment period for the regulations ends Feb. 3.
The proposed regulations can be viewed at https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/materials_minerals_pdf/part351propexterms.pdf
Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or Kayla Montanye, NYSDEC, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233.