Last month New York State enacted a law that prevents retailers from using most types of single-use plastic bags beginning on March 1, 2020. The purpose of the law, which permits plastic bags to still be used for things like uncooked meat, take-out food and garments, is to encourage consumers to rely on reusable bags instead.

However, it is up to counties and villages to decide whether they want to impose a small fee on paper bags in an attempt to cut down on their use as well.

Under this “opt-in” provision, counties and cities can pass local laws to charge 5 cents for single use paper bags sold in within their municipalities. According to a white paper published recently by the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC), found here and embedded below, the ban works as follows:

The legislation allows the legislative body of any county and city to impose a fee on paper carryout bags through local law to take effect on or after March 1, 2020. This is an opt-in, meaning there will be no fee unless the county or city chooses to act. If a county and a city wholly within such county both impose a fee, then the fee imposed by such county does not apply within the territorial limits of the city. The paper bag fee cannot apply to customers using the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, or any successor programs used as full or partial payment.
 
If the county or city imposes a paper bag fee locally, the Comptroller will pay 40 percent of the paper bag fee ($0.02) to the county or city that imposed it for the purpose of purchasing and distributing reusable bags, with priority given to low- and fixed-income communities. Any funds that have not been used for this purpose must be returned to the Comptroller and deposited into the General Fund for the State to purchase and distribute reusable bags. The remaining 60 percent of the fee ($0.03) is deposited into the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

A video of a webinar recently provided by NYSAC can be viewed here or below:

As the presentation points out, Suffolk County enacted a 5 cent fee on plastic and paper bags in 2018 and realized significant results:

Tony Pucci, a member of Veteran’s Zoning Board and candidate in 2018 for County Legislator wrote a Your Turn piece on this issue that was published last week by the Elmira Star Gazette and is reprinted here with his permission:

At the May 13th meeting of the Chemung County Legislature, I took the opportunity to address the New York State ban on most plastic bags that will go into effect on March 1, 2020. In addition, a fee of 5 cents per paper bag could be imposed by individual counties and municipalities with 2 cents retained by the local government and 3 cents going to the New York State Environmental Protection Fund.
 
I urged the Legislature to consider opting in to this program enabling the County to collect 5 cents per paper bag for several reasons.
 
In addition to the obvious environmental benefits of greatly reducing the use of plastic bags (residents of New York State alone use 23 billion plastic bags annually), this small fee on paper bags will encourage consumers to rely on reusable bags. One-use paper bags cost more to produce and end up adding to the amount of waste in landfills. Reusable bags are more efficient and cost-effective.
 
As with any new program, the County should educate the public on the advantages of reusable bags. Many years ago, when the County first introduced recycling of paper, plastics, and bottles, each household was provided a large blue bin.
 
To encourage the transition from plastic and paper bags to reusable bags, my suggestion is that the County contact local businesses and organizations to solicit donations of bags with their logo imprinted on them that can then be distributed at no cost to our residents. In this scenario, everyone wins. The County keeps 2 cents per paper bag for those who choose to use them, local businesses get to promote themselves as community partners, and each household receives a couple of reusable bags.
 
The County Executive has announced his opposition to this fee citing the fact that New Yorkers are already overtaxed. I could not agree more! I believe that the taxpayers should be far more concerned with the expenditure of thousands of dollars on impending litigation between the Executive and the Legislature, a dispute that should have been resolved through independent arbitration.
 
There are many ways to ensure that all of our residents have access to reusable bags at no cost to them. In addition to the suggestion of asking local businesses to provide free bags as mentioned above, the County could use the 2 cents it collects to purchase reusable bags for its residents. Perhaps County legislators could use their recent salary increase to purchase and distribute reusable bags to each household in their district.
 
Most people do not give a second thought to the 5 cent fee that is added to the cost of the purchase of each plastic or glass container. Most of those items are either returned to a redemption center or placed in recycling bins. The blue bins work. Recycling makes sense. Reusable bags also make sense.
 
If we are serious about improving our environment, let’s make this a project in which local government, business leaders, and the public work together. And if we can work together on this small project, perhaps we could work together to solve even more complex problems that we face. Wouldn’t that be nice?

The argument against the paper bag fee I have begun to hear most frequently is that this is just another way for Albany to tax New York residents.

I could not agree more that we are overtaxed, but this argument misses the point altogether. First, this is a fee, not a tax, because you don’t have to pay it. All anyone has to do is bring something to the store – a reusable bag, a box, an old plastic or paper bag, etc. – to transport their purchases and avoid the fee.

Second, a far more importantly, we have to start changing our attitudes toward consumerism. We cannot endlessly consume and believe there will not be consequences to our planet. Putting aside arguments about global warming and climate change, I think we can all agree that we desire a beautiful, clean planet to call home. We all – definitely me and my family included – consume way too much. Small steps like this can go a long way toward changing our patterns and making us far more conscientious about our choices.

I am working toward having a local law to opt-in to the paper bag fee introduced to the legislature to at least get a community discussion started. If it passes through committee, a public hearing will be held where anyone is permitted to speak. Please let me and the other legislators know how you feel about this issue, as we want as much input from the community as possible.

Christina Sonsire