How COVID-19 is Impacting NYS’s Ban on Plastic Bags

By Jordan Siegel

A state-wide ban of plastic bags in New York was set to go into effect on March 1, 2020, with enforcement beginning on April 1. This would mean that consumers in New York would either have to bring their own reusable bags or be charged 5 cents for store-provided paper bags. While there are a few exceptions (prescription drugs, raw meat, etc.), this ban could definitely decrease the shocking amount of plastic bags that are used in the state every year. In fact, it has been estimated that 10 billion plastic bags are used annually in New York City alone. Unfortunately, due to the state’s priority shift to the coronavirus, the enforcement of this ban will now begin on May 15, 2020; although, consumers will still be charged 5 cents to use a paper bag.

The Bag Waste Reduction Law states that plastic bags can no longer be distributed by anyone required to collect New York State sales tax. Consumers are encouraged to BYOB or bring your own bag. This may seem like an impossible task considering the size of New York State; however, plastic bag bans have proven to be successful in California and Oregon. In California specifically, there has been a 72 percent drop in plastic bag use since the enforcement of the ban began in late 2016. Each year 23 billion plastic bags are used throughout New York State, so if the trend in California carries over into New York, we could be seeing major positive environmental changes.

The law was originally pushed back due to a lawsuit brought on by New York businesses who claimed they didn’t have time to prepare for the ban on such short notice; however, courts have been prioritizing coronavirus-related cases. Additionally, as a result of the recently-heightened concern about the spread of disease, many residents of New York State have been questioning the safety of reusable bags. According to Matt Seaholm, the executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, “There is ample scientific research concluding reusable bags can contribute to the spread of bacteria and viruses.” Thus, since New York has become the new COVID-19 epicenter, some New Yorkers are very worried that reusable bags could increase the number of coronavirus cases, which have already put unimaginable strain on the state’s healthcare system. Even though this restriction is important for the environment, during a time like this, the safety of the people is the greatest priority.

On the other hand, some argue that the ban should continue to be in effect since reusable bags can be washed and made safe. Therefore, if people can properly take certain measures to keep their reusable bags clean, there should be no reason to not use them. In support of this point of view, Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaign director John Hocevar reprimanded those advocating against the prohibition of plastic bags.  “This kind of approach is, at the heart of it, cynical, selfish and opportunistic at a time when most people are thinking about how we can work together to get through this,” he argued. Other pro-environmental officials have added that research on the spread of viruses through reusable bags is limited, and business owners shouldn’t be pushing the use of plastic bags after reading one study just because they are pro-plastic. 

Personally, I think that there are arguments for both sides, and the state’s current priority should be the safety of its residents. Because research on the safety of reusable bags is so sparse at the moment, it will certainly be difficult for the government to decide on the best course of action. I do think that the use of plastic bags should be continuously monitored until the ban is put into effect on May 15 in order to strike a balance between protecting the environment and ensuring the health of New Yorkers, at least until we can all put this disaster behind us.

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