Task force aiming to reduce plastic bag waste

A state task force has issued a report on reducing single-use plastic bag use in New York. The group’s recommendations, if taken up by the governor and state legislature, could ban the bags outright or institute a fee for the bags, which are rarely recycled. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

A task force has sent recommendations to the governor and state legislature that it thinks will help reduce the negative impact single-use plastic bags have on landfills and the environment.

A report from the New York State Plastic Bag Task Force has been completed and sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature. The recommendations in the report look to bolster a 2009 state law that required large stores and retailers to set up an in-store recycling program.

But the state Department of Environmental Conservation says only a tiny fraction of plastic bags are recycled.

“Each year, Americans throw away more than 100 billion plastic bags,” the DEC wrote in its justification of the 2009 law. “Less than 1 percent are recycled. Recycling these bags and other film plastics reduces waste and litter, resulting in cleaner streets and waterways and less material in landfills.”

The task force was made up of DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, New York State Senator Thomas O’Mara, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright, Stephen Acquario, Executive Director, New York State Association of Counties, Marcia Bystryn, President, New York League of Conservation Voters and Michael Rosen, President and CEO, Food Industry Alliance of NY, Inc.

Proposed actions

The task force report notes that reducing plastic bag waste has become a world-wide endeavor, saying in the report that 75 countries have implemented measures, as have more than 100 cities, towns and municipalities across the U.S.

Ten cities across the state have also implemented a ban or fee on plastic bags, including New York City, but that ban was blocked by the state legislature. The task force draws on these existing examples of how to reduce plastic bags in its report.

The task force came up with eight proposals to reduce the bag waste, which include a range of options from simply maintaining the current law to implementing an outright ban on single-use plastic bags.

The most basic option would be to strengthen the 2009 law and require more reporting, enforcement and education, while another would be to simply leave the existing law as is. Another option could put the onus of collection and recycling on the manufacturers, compelling them to develop collection and recycling programs.

The rest of the proposals involve implementing some sort of fee. From a flat fee on plastic bags to a fee on both paper and plastic bags, the task force seems to see a benefit in small financial penalties. There could also be a flat fee per transaction; so instead of paying a small amount per bag, consumers would be charged during each transaction if a plastic bag is used, regardless of whether it’s one bag or many.

The task force recommends that if the fee approach is taken, money collected on plastic bags should be put into the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

The report also notes that any fees could adversely impact moderate and low income people more than others, and suggests that reusable bags be distributed as part of an educational component with low and fixed income people specifically in mind.

Negative affects

The reason for the proposed measures is that plastic bags are part of a number of issues. From litter to harming wildlife to filling landfills, the bags can be seen as a negative from a number of perspectives.

The report states that New Yorkers use 23 billion single-use bags each year, and about 22.75 billion of those are not recycled. Those bags are part of the millions of metric tons of plastic trash that get into aquatic environments, where they can kill fish and animals outright, be mistaken for food or ruin habitat. The report also notes that local governments and municipalities can face huge costs due to plastic bag litter.

“Before California’s state-wide plastic bag ban went into effect, it cost the City of San Jose $1 million each year to fix machinery jams at recycling facilities that were caused by plastic bags,” the report says. “One RHRF [recycling facility] in New York State cited that plastic bags cost them more than $300,000 per year for reasons that include screen cleaning, employee time spent fixing jams, and wear on parts.”

The report notes that while made of recyclable plastic, the bags do not lend themselves to facilities that take in curb-side recycling. Due to a lack of education and barriers to recycling – namely having to return the bags to point of purchase – very few get recycled, but the task force report hopes to rectify that issue.

To read the report in full, go to www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/112291.html.

COMMENTS