New York Banned Plastic Bags Two Years Ago. Why Are They Still Everywhere?

Two years after the state banned plastic bags, many New York City businesses are still distributing them with little fear of consequences.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   October 12, 2022
The plastic bag ban is not effective, its not being implemented, and it is not even something that I think most New Yorkers are aware of, said a city legislator. | Morgan Vander Hart

ONCE UBIQUITOUS, they’re now nowhere to be seen. Or at least, that’s what was supposed to happen when New York banned plastic bags for most uses in 2020. Yet two years later, many New York City supermarkets — not to mention smaller markets and bodegas — continue to distribute plastic bags as they always have.

Environmental advocates and some legislators blame the state, saying the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which is tasked with implementing the ban, isn’t doing enough to crack down or to educate businesses and consumers about alternatives. As a result, bags continue to pollute streets and waterways, block storm drains, and hamper the city’s recycling efforts.

“Right now, everything is, quite frankly, just half-assed,” City Council sanitation committee chair Sandy Nurse told New York Focus.

The ban’s incomplete rollout is also casting doubt on the state’s ability to effectively enforce pollution rules more broadly.

“Compared to regulating a chemical facility or a power plant, this is very easy to do,” said Judith Enck, president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics and former regional administrator at the US Environmental Protection Agency. “It calls into question why we have a DEC if they can’t even enforce a plastic bag ban.”

Beyond Plastics shared with New York Focus a list of more than 100 stores in the New York City area that continue to flout the ban, according to volunteers who go from store to store monitoring its effectiveness. The stores range in size from ethnic corner markets to national chains; the group has stopped keeping count of delis and bodegas, preferring to focus on bigger players. Beyond Plastics’ volunteers update the list regularly and share it with the DEC, which they say has failed to follow up.

“Our volunteers are doing DEC’s legwork for them,” Enck said.

The DEC insists that it is making a concerted effort to enforce the ban. A spokesperson said that, as of late September, the agency has conducted 425 store visits and issued 151 warning notices to businesses across the state for violating plastic bag laws. That amounts to about four visits a week since the ban took effect in October 2020.

The DEC has taken further enforcement actions 26 times, the spokesperson told New York Focus, issuing nine violation notices to small businesses and 17 to chains. Last May, THE CITY reported the agency had issued no fines. Since then, it has issued $75,000 worth, including $15,000 just this September — a sign that enforcement may be ramping up.

“New York continues to be a national leader on environmental issues, and … DEC is proud to be at the forefront of these efforts,” the agency said in a statement. “We continue to encourage New Yorkers to BYOBagNY and bring their own reusable bags wherever and whenever they shop.”

Enforcement has been effective in at least one case: Gristedes, which stopped distributing plastic bags after DEC referred complaints to the Attorney General, Enck said.

Meanwhile, many of the largest supermarket chains have voluntarily complied. The ban is also being widely respected outside of New York City, Beyond Plastics volunteers found — an ironic twist given that the city was the first to try to move against plastic bags, before the state stepped in and overrode it.

But in the state’s commercial capital, even some major retailers continue to evade the ban. Among them is Family Dollar, a discount chain with some 8,000 locations nationwide, including dozens within the five boroughs. The retailer’s parent company, Dollar Tree, is a Fortune 500 company that last year reported nearly $8 billion in profits.

“It’s one thing for the mom-and-pop delis, … but then there’s large corporations that can very easily adapt,” said Ryan Thoresen Carson, an environmental campaigner at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Large chains like Family Dollar “could, at the snap of a finger, just fall into compliance.”

All five of the Family Dollar outlets in Brooklyn visited by New York Focus were distributing plastic bags. | Colin Kinniburgh / New York Focus

New York Focus visited five Family Dollar outlets in Brooklyn, all of which were distributing plastic bags as of early October. Beyond Plastics’ volunteers reported the same at a half-dozen other locations in and around the city in recent months.

Dollar Tree spokesperson Kristin Tetreault said that any plastic bags still in its New York stores were the result of a mistaken shipment to “a very small number of stores.” She said the chain had taken steps to correct the error and prevent it from happening again.

CITY LEGISLATORS have pushed for more muscular enforcement too.

“As of this moment, the plastic bag ban is not effective, it’s not being implemented, and it is not even something that I think most New Yorkers are aware of,” Councilmember Nurse told New York Focus.

Nurse stresses that outreach and education, not just penalties, are key to the policy’s success. Fostering a “culture of reuse” requires a neighborbood-level campaign that has so far been absent, she said. And while she would like to see the city play a role, she said it was incumbent on the state, with its larger pool of resources, to take the lead.

Requiring producers to take care of their own waste could unlock further resources toward this end; two contending approaches to doing so are being debated in the state legislature. Nurse also proposes taking enforcement up to the wholesale level, cutting off the supply of cheap plastic bags at the source.

In the meantime, plastic bags continue to litter the streets and clog up the city’s recycling facilities. New Yorkers aren’t supposed to put thin plastics like bags in the recycling, but many do anyway. When they get to the plant, they get tangled in the equipment that sorts paper, metal, glass, and the intended rigid plastics, slowing the city’s efforts to improve its low recycling rates.

“We spend a lot of time and effort extracting plastic bags from the stuff we want, just to then turn around and send [them] to the landfill,” Tom Outerbridge, the general manager of Sims Municipal Recycling, whose plants process the city’s metal, glass, and plastic recycling, told the City Council last month.

Outerbridge said he hasn’t seen any meaningful reduction in the number of plastic bags showing up at his plants. The city doesn’t keep regular data of its own on the city’s waste profile; its last study on the subject came out in 2017 and the next one isn’t expected until 2024, according to Department of Sanitation spokesperson Vincent Gragnani.

Carson, of NYPIRG, says the patchy implementation of the bag ban bodes poorly for future waste reduction efforts. The group is backing New York City bills to phase out a wider array of single-use plastics, and Carson worries these policies could fall into a similar trap without more resources to back them up.

“The DEC has not been able to operate at full capacity for quite some time,” he said. “I see this on bottle bill compliance as well, that DEC just doesn’t really have the capacity to answer complaints in a particularly timely fashion.”

As New York Focus reported last month, the DEC has yet to fully recover from major budget cuts that led it to lay off a fifth of its staff over a decade ago. Its workforce today is about 10 percent smaller than it was before the financial crisis, even as it has taken on a wide array of new responsibilities including enforcing the bag ban.

THE SLUGGISH IMPLEMENTATION of the plastic bag ban reflects a common dynamic in New York, where lawmakers pass ambitious, precedent-setting environmental laws, but are slow to match them with the resources needed to follow through. The state still has no plan to fund its sweeping climate law more than three years after it passed, for example.

On paper, New York’s plastic bag ban is the strongest in the country, out of 10 statesthat have passed such bans, Enck said. But in implementation, it’s been overtaken by states like neighboring New Jersey, where she sits on a plastics advisory council.

Plastic bags have environmental impacts beyond clogging up municipal infrastructure and polluting waterways. Most plastic in the US today is made with ethane, a component of fossil gas, that is “cracked” in a plant in order to be transformed into everything from bags to records. Most of that gas in turn comes from fracking, and US fossil fuel giants are banking on plastics manufacturing as an outlet for fracked gas as power plants and homes wean themselves off it.

“Plastic production is the plan B for the fossil fuel industry,” Enck said.

Advocates stress that simply switching to other single-use bags will not solve the problem. Paper bags are in many respects worse for the environment than plastic — except, crucially, that they break down easily and are widely recycled. Piling up tote bags is also a no-no: a single cotton tote bag needs to be reused dozens of times before it becomes more environmentally friendly than its plastic counterpart (though probably not thousands of times, as some headlines have suggested).

Enck compared pollution rules to health codes, where agencies don’t hesitate to crack down even against small businesses.

“Even if you’re a small mom-and-pop restaurant, you have to comply, just like if you’re a chain restaurant,” Enck said. Patchy enforcement, she added, is “unfair to the stores that are complying with the law.”

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
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