Bagging the Plastic Bag, New York Prepares to Go Green

Reusable bags on display, ready for the plastic bag ban, at Holyland Market on St. Marks Place. Photo courtesy of Currie Engel

Anyone who has spent time in New York has seen one of the city’s infamous plastic birds perched in the trees— shopping bags that escaped from their owner only to tangle in the branches of a street-side maple. Soon, New Yorkers hope these unsightly creatures will be a thing of the past.

Starting March 1st, New York will ban plastic bag use will be banned all over New York State. The new law, which was signed last April by Governor Andrew Cuomo, will affect all retailers.

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s website, New York State goes through approximately 23 billion plastic bags each year. Legislators hope this new law will reduce that number significantly. By not providing plastic bags at checkout, businesses will encourage their customers to bring reusable bags. And while many stores will still provide paper bags for those who need them, they won’t be free. The paper bags will cost consumers an extra 5-cents per bag. (The Department of Environmental Conservation notes that this extra fee will not affect Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program recipients.)

Teresa Cunningham, a Community Affairs Liaison for the Department of Sanitation, spoke at a Brooklyn Community Board 3 meeting in Bedford-Stuyvesant on Monday night, reminding the packed basement room that the ban would take effect at the beginning of March. Bright orange reusable bags were handed around the room. 

“Can I have one?” said a woman whose voice rose above the murmuring crowd.

At 5 cents a pop, a big grocery run could run up a lot of nickels. And “if you double up, you’re going to add to that bill,” Cunningham pointed out, garnering laughs from the audience.

Judging from a highly unscientific survey by NYCity Lens, many New Yorkers have responded positively to the ban, citing the positive environmental impact, cleaner streets and less crowded trees. Based on a review by a specialized task force, Cuomo says that the reduction should help reduce greenhouse gases and keep waterways clean from contamination. The WSJ reports that 

David Hill, 65, has lived in New York for 10 years and is a fan of the ban. “I grew up on paper bags and paper straws, all of it—it was never an issue,” he says. But Hill hates seeing the bags stuck in trees. “They need to be gone,” he says. 

And Hill isn’t the only one. “The sooner the better,” says Ivan Babiy, 26, who is originally from the Ukraine but has lived in Brooklyn for three years.

Even visitors like Mike O’Dwyer, 57, who is from Long Island but was visiting Manhattan for a birthday party, are hopeful about the ban’s ability to change consumer behavior. O’Dwyer says his hometown didn’t completely ban plastic bags but they did start charging 5 cents for them. He has become a proponent of these kinds of measures after seeing how well the 5-cent charge worked to change his own behavior. ”I cut down 100%,” he says. 

The ban will also have an impact on stores that commonly dispense the plastic bags. When asked about the ban, store managers and workers were aware of the new law and most indicated that they supported it, though some were more uncertain about how their stores would adapt. 

Amiandshu Dam, manager at Commodities Health Food, thinks the new law is a good thing, and wonders why more states don’t impose a ban. “This should be all over the country,” Dam says. The store already has paper bags in the back, and Dam has ordered reusable bags as well. “We’ve prepared already,” he says. But Dam also has $8,000 worth of plastic bags stocked downstairs that he says are now headed for the garbage. He doesn’t know if the store can be compensated for the loss on the bags.

Carmen Vasilio, who works at Best Price Deli and Grocery on 1st Avenue in Manhattan, doesn’t know about the store’s specific plans to adapt to the change, but she did notice the letter that was sent to the store. 

A plastic bag ban flyer at Holyland Market on St. Marks Place/Photo by Currie Engel for NYCityLens

“You’re talking about this one?” asks Yuval, pointing to a flyer on the checkout counter at Holyland Market, the kosher grocery on St. Marks Place where he works. Yuval says the store is already preparing for the ban to take effect and has bought some paper and reusable bags to replace the plastic. He also says the reusable bags, which are already on display, will be sold for $2. “This is the law, and we like the law because we like the earth,” he says. “We try to find the best solution.”