New York State Bans Plastic Bags: It’s Not a Model to Emulate

In April 2019, the New York State Bag Waste Reduction Act was adopted as part of the state budget, making New York the second state in the U.S. to adopt a statewide plastic bag law. However, New York’s law is not a model that other states should emulate.

The best practice for plastic bag laws is to include a mandatory fee component, either a fee on all carryout bags, or a ban on thin plastic bags and a fee on all remaining carryout bags. A fee component discourages overall carryout bag consumption, which is the key to effectiveness.

New York State’s law violates this best practice by banning all plastic bags at checkout and not mandating a statewide fee on available checkout bags. The state law preempts all local bags laws except for one very narrow exception, which allows local legislation for a 5-cent flat fee on paper bags. This is referred to as a paper bag fee “opt-in.” Passing local legislation in countless local jurisdictions is time-intensive and costly; opting in to the paper bag fee is not as simple as it may sound.

Status of Bags in NYC

New York City Council moved quickly after the state law was finalized, adopting a law mandating a 5-cent paper bag fee. A few other counties in the state are considering the same. This means that on March 1, 2020 in New York City, retailers will only be able to provide a paper bag for 5 cents, or a reusable bag not made of plastic with no mandatory fee. The money collected from the paper bag fee will be split between two government funds: 60% to a state conservation fund, 40% to a local fund with the sole purpose of providing free reusable bags to low-income New Yorkers.

Reusable Bags Not Exempt From Plastic Bag Ban

Unlike virtually all of state and local bag laws in the world, New York’s statewide law does not exempt reusable bags from the ban on all plastic bags. Most bag laws in the U.S. and around the globe simply set a thickness threshold for plastic film bags to be considered reusable. Plastic bags thicker than the threshold are available at checkout. In New York, reusable checkout bags provided to the customer cannot be made out of plastic.

The Take Home

As other state legislators move forward with drafting legislation, they often look to what other states have done. The take home here is that New York’s state bill should not be used as a model. Instead, legislators that want to move forward with progressive bag policies should consider bills that mandate a fee on all available bags (e.g., California, Oregon) and that don’t preempt all further plastic bag regulation. 

The text of the New York State Bag Waste Reduction Act can be found here.

Jennie Romer