ALBANY, N.Y. — Single-use plastic bags will soon be a thing of the past in New York, after legislators approved a ban as part of the state budget announced this week. For local officials in Tompkins County, the question now is how it will be implemented locally and who will enforce it.

New York will be the second state to ban single-use plastic bags, following California’s ban that went into effect in 2016. As states have slowly been mobilizing on banning the non-biodegradable bags, counties and municipalities across the country have moved at a faster pace. Major cities like Boston and Chicago have already banned plastic bags, and hundreds more municipalities across the U.S. have banned or taxed plastic bags.

New York’s ban on plastic bags will officially go into effect next March.

So many states have been moving to ban the bags that have become a “ubiquitous sight on the landscape,” as a 2018 report by the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force put it, because they harm wildlife, create significant recycling issues and generally just create a lot of waste. The report found that the average family uses 1,500 single-use plastic bags a year for an average of 12 minutes each.

“While the federal government is taking our environmental progress backwards and selling out our communities to polluters and oil companies, in New York we are moving forward with the nation’s strongest environmental policies and doing everything in our power to protect our natural resources for future generations,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a January statement announcing the ban. “These bold actions to ban plastic bags and promote recycling will reduce litter in our communities, protect our water and create a cleaner and greener New York for all.”

There will be some exceptions to the ban. Food takeout bags, deli bags, newspaper bags, garment bags or plastic for bulk items will be exempt, the New York Times reports.

Locally, Tompkins County has been studying and considering banning plastic bags for years. Last year the majority of local legislators supported the statewide effort. And a local resolution was recently put on hold to see if the measure would pass in the state. For the past year, a Waste Reduction Committee of the Tompkins County Environmental Management Council, which is a citizen advisory board on local environmental issues, studied options for a plastic bag ban for the county.

In its proposal, the EMC recommended stores provide only paper checkout bags for 10 cents each, and retailers would retain that paper bag fee. But the amount that is charged — the state is considering 5 cents — for paper bags and where that money will go is still up for debate. At the state level, the New York Times reports that counties would be able to opt in to the 5-cent fee, and part of it would go to the Environmental Protection Fund and the rest would go to a separate fund to buy reusable bags.

When asked why a plastic bag ban was an important issue for the Waste Reduction Committee, Tom Shelley, who chairs it, said primarily for environmental reasons. He quickly listed several statistics about plastic and plastic bags — including that it can take up to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to decompose, and that microplastics have increasingly been found in water sources, including Cayuga Lake.

“There’s just a glut of plastic in the environment,” Shelley said. “The thing about the thin-film plastics is they break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but they never go away.”

In a presentation in October, the Waste Reduction Committee calculated that Tompkins County residents could be using up to 36.4 million single-use plastic bags a year.

In Tompkins County, several places have been ahead of the curve in switching away from plastic bags over the years. GreenStar only offers paper bags, after testing out biodegradable plastic bags in the past. The Ithaca Farmers Market also moved away from plastic bags and vendors switched to using compostable bags made of corn polymers. But switching to paper bags can be more costly for businesses.

With the news of the ban, Wegmans, one of Ithaca’s biggest grocery stores, says it is still trying to gauge what the full impact on their business will be, according to a statement from Jo Natale, vice president of media relations of Wegmans Food Markets.

“We understand the need to reduce single-use plastic,” Natale said in a statement. “Our thinking on this issue has always been the same: reusable bags are the best way to solve the challenges of single-use checkout bags, and a growing number of our customers are opting to use them. However, a plastic bag ban that doesn’t also address the use of paper bags is not a sustainable solution. Just one implication, and there are others: It takes 7 tractor trailers to transport the same number of paper bags as plastic bags carried by one tractor trailer. We are now trying to better understand the full impact on our business.”

Natale said Wegmans can’t divulge how many bags it goes through in each store, as that’s proprietary information, but she said in Ithaca and all Wegmans stores, they accept #2 and #4 plastic bags, which are recycled and used to make their grocery bags.

Tompkins County Administrator Jason Molino said the county is still learning the details of the ban. And how the plastic bag ban will be enforced still remains a question, Molino said.

Featured image: A single-use plastic bag. (Jacob Mroczek/Ithaca Voice)

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.