The need is clear. When well-intentioned people recycle plastic bags along with other plastics, the bags snag on recycling equipment. Then the system must stop periodically and bags are removed by hand. Bags also clog storm drains and sewage systems, where they must be manually removed before they cause backups and flooding.
The environment suffers, too. Thin plastic bags become airborne, entering the environment unintentionally. In trees and along roads, they are ugly, entangle animals, and are mistaken for food by fish and birds.
An international movement to ban single use plastic bags has been gathering momentum. Bangladesh passed the first country-wide bag ban in 2002. Laws are in place in China, Ireland, Wales, Italy, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Mali, Rwanda, South Africa, Pakistan, and the Philippines. In the US, bag laws are widespread among cities, towns, and counties.
In New York State, twelve municipalities have adopted bag bans, including the Village of New Paltz in 2014. Four municipalities, including New York City, have introduced bag fees. In February, NYC's law was suspended by the New York State legislature in response to plastics industry lobbying.
Governor Cuomo announced a "statewide task force... addressing the plastic bag problem" when he signed the law reversing NYC's fee. One task force member is Michael Rosen, President & CEO of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State. In 2015, FIA sued the Village of Hastings-on-Hudson over its plastic bag ban.
With lobbyists like Rosen on the state task force, it's easy to assume that the effort will lead nowhere. The FIA opposes plastic bag bans because retailers end up paying more, but it supports bag fees, which save retailers money.
Single use plastic carryout bags cost retailers between 1 and 2 cents each. When they are banned, most shoppers opt for paper bags, which cost between 8 and 15 cents each. Obviously, it costs much more for store owners to give away paper bags than plastic. Double-bagging adds to these costs, and shoppers pay in higher grocery prices.
Some shoppers may be willing to pay more for paper bags in order to keep plastic bags out of the environment. But banning plastic bags doesn't have to result in higher costs due to increased paper bag use. The only win-win is when shoppers bring their own bags. Some will do it for the environment, but as long as checkout bags are given away, most people will take this easy option.
Retailers in Chicago responded to that city's 2016 bag ban by substituting slightly thicker plastic bags that aren't covered by the bag ban. These qualified as "reusable" under the law, and were given away for free — but they cost stores more than thin bags. This led to both higher costs for stores and more plastic waste. Thus the law didn't accomplish its environmental goal, and it hurt businesses. In response, Chicago instituted a 7 cent tax (5 cents kept by the retailer) which eliminated the problem by inspiring shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.
Fees are remarkably effective at encouraging the adoption of reusable bags. A 5 cent fee reduces plastic and paper bag use by 60 percent to 90 percent. Reports show that giving cash back for bringing reusable bags is largely ineffective. Fees work; cash back doesn't.
Said Zadeh, the owner of My Market in the Village of New Paltz's, supports the village's plastic bag ban, but thinks it should have applied to the Town as well as the Village. Since the ban passed, he has seen a slight increase in the use of reusable bags, but a large increase in paper. He also sells (or gives away) 50 cent thick plastic bags and $2 cloth bags. He has never seen people bring them back to reuse them.
If you want people to bring reusable bags, Said says, you have to teach them young, or "maybe charge a fee."
With little prospect of action by New York State, localities need to act first. Marbletown's proposed ban is one more step in this direction. Local retailers are concerned that even a small fee might drive shoppers elsewhere. That's why Marbletown's law has a built-in periodic review, which will make sure it accomplishes its intended environmental purpose while not harming businesses.
We hope this law will spur Ulster County, and eventually the state, to act. You can help by making sure your representatives understand the problem and what they can do to fix it.
Tom Konrad Ph.D., CFA is a money manager and investment writer in Stone Ridge and servess as the chair of the Marbletown Environmental Conservation Commission.