Plastic Bag Ban Coming — In March, Not January

Dutchess enforcement unlikely until state law takes effect

A Dutchess County law banning plastic grocery bags takes effect Jan. 1 but is unlikely to be enforced because a statewide measure effective March 1 will supersede it.

The state regulation, signed into law on Earth Day (April 22) by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, bans single-use, carry-out plastic bags at any store that is required to collect sales tax. New York joins seven other states that have banned single-use plastic bags.

The ban passed as part of the state budget. Sandy Galef, whose Assembly district includes Philipstown, and Jonathan Jacobson, whose district includes Beacon, both Democrats, voted for all 10 bills that comprised the budget, while Sen. Sue Serino, a Republican whose district includes the Highlands, voted against all 10.

Once the state law goes into effect, plastic will only be allowed in select circumstances, such as for bulk items, to bundle fruits or vegetables, or to hold uncooked meat and food sliced to order. Single-use paper bags may be available but stores will not be required to stock them. Otherwise, consumers will be encouraged to bring their own reusable bags or to carry small purchases.

The law exempts newspaper bags, garment bags, plastic bags provided by restaurants and plastic bags provided by pharmacies for prescription drugs.

Consumers use billions of plastic bags each year. (Photo by Kate Ter Haar/Flickr)

According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, New Yorkers use more than 23 billion single-use plastic bags each year. Many inadvertently enter glass or aluminum recycling streams, where they’re considered one of the worst contaminants because they clog sorting machines or force workers to remove them by hand.

The state law allows counties and cities to impose a 5-cent fee on paper carryout bags, with 40 percent of the revenue kept by the county or city to buy and distribute reusable bags and the remaining 60 percent contributed to the state Environmental Protection Fund. Purchases made using federal programs such as food stamps would be exempt from paper-bag fees.

Cuomo has also proposed banning single-use polystyrene foam containers (“Styrofoam”) and polystyrene loose fill packaging (packing peanuts) by 2022. A year ago, the Putnam County Legislature considered a ban on the use of foam plastic cups and cartons by chain restaurants but did not vote on the measure.

The Dutchess County law, adopted by legislators a year ago by a 23-1 vote, will ban disposable plastic bags but does not include a surcharge.

Frits Zernike, a Democrat whose district includes part of Beacon, was the only Dutchess legislator to vote against the ban, saying the bill had been stripped down too much by not including a bag fee, allowing the county to “lurch toward some progress” instead of shifting in a larger way “from disposability toward a more sustainable outlook.”

Before being amended, the Dutchess proposal would have added a 10-cent per bag surcharge to paper bags, with retailers keeping the proceeds. Much like a measure approved in Ulster County earlier in 2018, the fees would have been waived for seniors or customers paying through federal food programs.

Because state law supersedes local legislation, and the measures are so similar, Dutchess County won’t enforce its law during the first two months of 2020.

“There aren’t going to be penalties,” said Colleen Pillus, a county spokesperson. “We’re trying to be realistic for businesses and to not make things confusing.”

Legislator Nick Page, who represents much of Beacon and was part of a group of lawmakers that introduced the county law, said Wednesday that he supports implementing a 5-cent paper bag fee but doesn’t think it has enough support to be enacted in Dutchess. Fees have “been shown to be the prime driver of a shift to bring-your-own-bag,” he said.

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