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New York needs Gov. Cuomo to deliver statewide policy on bags

A shopper in Riverhead carries groceries in plastic

A shopper in Riverhead carries groceries in plastic bags in 2016. Credit: Randee Daddona

Last February, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called plastic bags littering our streets and waterways a “statewide challenge.” At the time, he blocked a New York City law that would have instituted a 5-cent fee on plastic bags. Instead, he established a task force to come up with a statewide solution.

“This task force will be different than usual as this matter requires expeditious action,” Cuomo promised in a statement that day. A month later, Cuomo established the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force. Its mission was clear.

“The working group will be charged with developing a report and proposed legislation to address the detrimental impact of plastic bags on the state’s environment,” a news release said. “Members of the task force will work to develop a uniform and equitable statewide plan to address New York’s plastic bag problem.”

Earlier this month, during a holiday weekend, that task force quietly released an 86-page report. It listed eight wide-ranging options that covered nearly any possible solution, from maintaining existing policies to adding a fee to banning the bags. But the task force did not make any recommendations. It did not establish “a uniform and equitable statewide plan,” and it did not propose any legislation. Since the task force released its findings, Cuomo has said virtually nothing about plastic bags. So much for a task force that would be “different than usual.”

This year, Suffolk County instituted a 5-cent fee for plastic and paper bags at retail stores. But much of the rest of the state has done nothing. The City of Long Beach, and towns and villages on the South Fork are among a few exceptions.

In 2016, the New York City Council tried to do the right thing by passing a 5-cent fee. It could have changed city residents’ behavior, reduced waste, and protected birds and fish. When the State Legislature and Cuomo stopped it, they said a statewide policy would be better. Now, a year and a half later, the city is exactly where it started. In that time, countless plastic bags have clogged storm drains and waterways, gotten stuck in trees, and piled up in our landfills. We have a meaningless task force report, and silence from the governor.

State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan also has failed to take the lead. Last week, he told a business group that the New York City plan he helped kill was “idiotic” because the nickel bag fee would go to retailers. But he doesn’t support a law that would allow them to direct that money to the environment or an outright ban.

Regardless, the governor’s staff said he plans to come up with a statewide solution “as early as this session.” Clearly, this solution won’t be easy. Cuomo has to draft a tough New York law and use all his muscle to corral legislative support for it.

This is, after all, a “statewide challenge.”