Plastic or paper? Both impact the environment, according to more than a decade of research.
That is why some environmentalists say the state's new plastic bag ban law, which makes a 5-cent fee on paper bags optional for counties and cities, is bad public policy that could hurt the environment. And while environmentalists are pleased lawmakers are banning plastic, they predict the law will cause paper bag use to surge in counties such as Nassau, where local politicians have vowed not to implement the fee.
The ultimate, they say, would be a required statewide fee on paper — to drive people to reusable bags — but that probably will have to wait for another legislative session.
"We've seen the result of what happens. People switch from one type of disposable bag to another, and we don’t have a clear environmental benefit," said Jennie Romer, founder of plasticbaglaws.org and a Manhattan-based sustainability consultant who has worked across the country on bag laws. "If we're going to create laws about bags, we need to do it in a way that we know is effective. And straight bans [on plastic] are just not effective."
Plastic and paper both have their environmental drawbacks.
Plastic bags have become international targets of activists and governments because they are made from fossil fuels, choke marine life, litter roadways, gum up recycling machines, break down into toxic "microplastics" that can enter the food chain and are difficult to recycle.
With paper bags, trees have to be cut to produce them, they require prodigious amounts of water to make, and — since they are bulkier and heavier than plastics — require more tractor trailers to transport.
Romer said the two most proven ways to reduce disposable bags are a ban on plastic, coupled with a mandatory fee on paper, or putting fees on both paper and plastic, like Suffolk County has had in place since 2018. The only exception on plastic in Suffolk is to pack produce and meats.
Some other cities — including San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Honolulu — that banned plastic bags, but allowed free paper, saw an uptick in paper use, said Romer, who worked on the plastic bag ban in California that included a 10-cent fee on other bags.
Suffolk's 5-cent plastic law will be supplanted by the new state law, according to the governor's office. The county, which also has passed bans on plastic straws and Styrofoam, is expected to implement a 5-cent fee on paper bags, effective when the new state law is in place. The New York City Council last month approved a 5-cent fee on paper, effective March 1, 2020, when the state plastic ban takes effect. Nassau County's legislative leader said he won't pass a fee on paper.
"I understand the arguments made about plastic bags," said Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), presiding officer of the Nassau legislature. "They're not biodegradable. They linger in landfills for years and years. It doesn’t apply to paper bags."
But in order to change consumer behavior, environmentalists say, a fee on paper is necessary.
"It comes down to, is your goal to prevent plastic in the ocean? Or is the goal to promote environmental sustainability with reusable bags? New York had a golden opportunity to do both, and blew it," said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator for the region who now teaches about plastic pollution at Bennington College.
Still, Enck added that the bill passed by the state was better than nothing. "I'm glad they passed what they did," she said.
Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), the environmental committee chair who long has fought against single-use plastics, including bags, called the bill "a reasonably good outcome" and suggested the law could be amended in the future to mandate a statewide fee.
Ten environmental advocates sent Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo a letter in February urging that he add a mandatory statewide fee on paper bags to his proposed plastic bag ban, among other changes, to no avail.
Englebright said Cuomo was against a statewide fee this year. "He wanted a local option," Englebright said. "He didn’t want to be tattooed with imposing from Mount Zeus a new tax. That was pretty clear."
Cuomo spokesman Jordan Levine, in a statement, wrote that the governor and legislature "negotiated a resolution that was acceptable to all. Our ultimate goal is to push people toward reusable bags, which is why a significant portion of the fee is intended for bag giveaways."
While they have their own environmental costs to produce, reusable bags can be brought to the store again and again.
Cuomo touted the plastic bag bill at a ceremonial signing on Earth Day in April at LIU Post. "We lead the way on the environment once again," he said.
After the ceremony, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, who headed the task force on plastic bags, said local governments wanted the option of imposing a fee. The option "is recognizing that localities want to be able to control assessments on their own consumers ... We heard that very powerfully during the budget process, that they wanted a level of local control. So, I think we'll let this run its course, and hopefully produce some real results. And if that helps to change opinions in the long run about fees, then we're all ears," he said.
Environmentalists who attended the Cuomo ceremony said the bill was significant progress. It next would fall to environmental advocates to lobby counties and cities who have said they don't want to impose the 5-cent fee.
"The ideal version of the bill is a mandatory nickel fee on paper. However, that doesn't undermine the progress of reducing plastic," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment in Farmingdale. "The plastic pollution crisis needs to be addressed immediately. A whale has never died from eating a paper bag."
She said stores could voluntarily stop giving away paper bags.
Mike Durant, president of the Food Industry Alliance of New York, which represents grocery stores, had fought the governor's proposal and recommended a bill based on Suffolk's model 5-cent fee on both paper and plastic bags. A county study found the fee reduced disposable bag consumption by 80 percent.
"You're basically taking a plastic bag problem and creating a paper bag problem," Durant said. "A surge in use of paper is not going to have a positive environmental impact."
A state plastic bag task force convened by Cuomo in 2017 pointed to research that found "paper bags require a significant quantity of water to produce and take up more space than single-use plastic bags during shipping. Due to the increased energy required for both the production and transportation of paper bags, they have been found to have a greater carbon footprint than single-use plastic bags.”
The bags also have a footprint on stores' bottom lines. The thin single-use plastic bags cost stores about 1 to 2 cents each, while paper bags cost 5 to 10 cents each.
Because Suffolk's plastic law will be replaced by the new state law, the county will have to pass a new resolution to implement a paper fee. It's unclear whether the new fee on paper will be kept by grocery stores or be split: 3 cents going to a state environmental fund and 2 cents going to a county fund for reusable bags.
In Nassau, though, Nicolello said he is unswayed by concerns about paper bags' effect on greenhouse gas emissions.
"If you’re going to look at carbon footprints, that opens up a whole variety of things," he said. "People drive to work in cars. I would encourage people to use reusable bags, but I don’t believe it’s the role of government to add another fee."
WHERE THEY STAND ON PLASTIC, PAPER
Plastic bags will be banned statewide, starting March 1. Counties and cities will have the option of charging consumers 5 cents for paper bags. Here's where Suffolk, Nassau and New York City stand on plastic and paper.
- Suffolk County already charges 5 cents for plastic and paper bags, but that law will be replaced by the state plastic bag ban, according to the governor’s office. Suffolk lawmakers are expected to pass a 5-cent fee on paper. Stores now provide free bags for produce and meat, and that will carry over even when the plastic ban goes into effect.
- Nassau County's legislative leader said he won't pass the 5-cent fee on paper. Consumers currently don't have to pay for plastic or paper bags in the county.
- The New York City Council last month approved a 5-cent fee on paper bags, effective March 1.
Sources: Counties, city, governor’s office
PLASTIC VS. PAPER
Pros: Lightweight, cheap, durable when wet, can be reused for pet waste and trash can liner.
Cons: Made from fossil fuels, ingested by marine life, litters roadways and beaches, damages recycling machines, breaks down into toxic "microplastics," no recycling market.
Pros: Can carry more than plastic. Can be made from recycled material.
Cons: Requires trees to produce, uses lots of water and energy to make and more energy to transport. Studies have found they have a larger carbon footprint than plastic.
Source: New York State Plastic Bag Task Force