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State task force fails to agree on solution to ‘New York’s plastic bag problem’

File photo: Denise Civiletti

A statewide plan for reducing plastic bag use in New York will have to wait.

The task force created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year to develop a statewide plan and legislation to address “New York’s plastic bag problem” failed to reach a consensus.

One member of the six-person task force issued a dissent from the task force report, which was released Saturday. Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement she was “disappointed” that the report does not advocate imposing a fee on single-use plastic bags, which she said is the only effective way to reduce consumer use and thereby plastic bag production.

In fact, the 24-page report doesn’t advocate any one approach. Instead it provides a comprehensive overview of the problem, reviews measures that have been place in New York State, across the country and around the world, and examines the pros and cons of eight legislative options — from an outright ban on single-use plastic bags, to imposing fees on single-use bags, to continuing the state’s current policies, which require large retailers to provide plastic bag recycling bins and relies on voluntary participation by consumers.

Plastic bag recycling doesn’t do the job, Bystryn said. The current recycling market can’t handle “even the paltry amount of film plastic that is currently recycled, let alone the full amount of film plastic we generate,” Bystryn said. “We must instead focus on reducing the number of plastic bags produced.”

The Plastic Bag Task Force, created by the governor last March, was chaired by NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos. Its members, besides Bystryn, included Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee and Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats), chairman of the State Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee, Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties and Michael Rosen, president and CEO of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State.

The full report is posted on the State Department of Environmental Conservation website.

“The costly and negative impact of plastic bags on New York’s natural resources is a statewide issue that demands a statewide solution,” the governor said when he announced the task force last March.

Americans use hundreds of billions of plastic bags annually. Plastic bags are derived from fossil fuels, they are only used for an average of 12 minutes each, and the environmental impacts of their production, distribution, and use leave a lasting effect, from litter to impacting waterways and harming marine life, the report states.

Bystryn maintains there are only two acceptable approaches: a fee on both plastic and paper bags or a hybrid model that bans plastic bags and institutes a fee on paper.

“It is the long-held position of the environmental community that a successful solution must include a fee component on all single-use bags. Improving recycling will not achieve this effect,” she said.

Retail and grocer trade groups have opposed bans on plastic bags, but supported fees — which local laws have allowed retailers to keep, in whole or in part.

A plan like that adopted by New York City, imposing a five-cent fee on single-use plastic bags, was killed by the state last February. Cuomo said the law was “deeply flawed” because it would have allowed merchants to keep the five-cent fee, which he called “a $100 million bonus to private companies [that] is beyond the absurd.”

After signing the bill that blocked the NYC law, Cuomo established the task force to come up with a statewide solution, including proposed legislation.

Suffolk County in 2016 adopted a local law similar to the NYC law. The Suffolk law imposes a five-cent fee on single-use “carryout” bags — whether plastic or paper — distributed at the point of sale by retail stores, which keep the fees collected. The law took effect this Jan. 1.

Most retail stores, including convenience stores and pharmacies are required to collect the fee.

Food service establishments are not required to collect the fee (unless they are located inside grocery stores, supermarkets or convenience stores.) A food service establishment is defined as a “place where prepared food is provided for individual portion service directly to a consumer, whether consumption occurs on or off the premises.”

Certain bags are exempt from the fee: garment bags, bags provided to carry prescription drugs and plastic bags without handles that are used to carry certain items (e.g.produce, meats, poultry) to the point of sale. Also exempt are reusable bags made of cloth or durable plastic that’s at least 2.25 mls thick.

Stores that fail to comply with the county law are subject to a fine of $500 per occurrence.

Several towns and villages in Suffolk County — including East Hampton, Southampton and Patchogue — and elsewhere in New York State have enacted bans on single-use plastic carryout bags.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.