TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Tompkins County Legislature has approved a local 5-cent paper bag fee that will go into effect at the same time as New York’s waste reduction law banning plastic bags on March 1, 2020.

Legislators unanimously adopted the local law Tuesday. The fee is meant to reduce the amount of paper bags in the recycling stream and in landfills and incentivize local residents to bring reusable bags shopping.

“It’s about behavior change and I think it works,” said Tompkins County Legislature Chair Martha Robertson. “We used to throw everything out. Now we wouldn’t think of not recycling.”

• Related: Local lens: New York bans single-use plastic bags

The law is intended to reduce the amount of plastic winding up as litter, in waterways, and in the path or stomachs of wildlife. Plastic bags can take hundreds of years to decompose and also create significant recycling issues. In New York, en estimated 23 billion plastic bags are used each year. And according to a report from the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force, the average family uses 1,500 single-use plastic bags a year for about 12 minutes each.

(Photo by Jacob Mroczek/The Ithaca Voice)

When jurisdictions ban plastic bags, the same report found that people often turn to the alternative at check-out aisles: paper bags. But paper bags, though recyclable, also take a toll on the environment. As the report states, paper bags require a “significant quantity of water to produce and take up more space than single-use plastic bags during shipping. Due to the increased energy required for both the production and transportation of paper bags, they have been found to have a greater carbon footprint than single-use plastic bags.”

Last year when Tompkins County Legislature voted 10-2 to support the statewide ban, Legislator Mike Sigler did not back the resolution and illustrated the difference in volume between 1,200 plastic and 1,200 paper bags.

Legislator Mike Sigler illustrates the size difference between 1,200 plastic bags (in hand) and 1,200 paper bags at a meeting in 2018. (File Photo)

Like with the plastic bag ban, some paper bags will be exempt from the local law such as paper bags used for medications or bulk food items. The fee will also not apply to customers who are SNAP or WIC recipients.

Wegmans in Ithaca stopped offering single-use plastic bags in July ahead of New York’s law. They offer paper bags at checkout lanes, but like Tompkins County’s law will require, charge a 5-cent fee. According to a July press release from Wegmans, in one of their stores in Maryland, where it’s required by law to charge 5 cents for paper and plastic bags, 65% of shoppers use reusable bags, compared to its New York state stores which average about 20% use.

The revenue from the 5-cent fee will go to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Forty percent, or two cents, of the fee will make its way back to Tompkins County for the purchase and distribution of reusable bags, with priority given to low- and fixed-income communities, and the other 60% will go into the Environmental Protection Fund.

Kelsey O'Connor

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