A year after legislation banning single-use plastic bags in NYC was passed into law on March 1, 2020, many local shops are still handing them out with the groceries.
The plastic bag ban, formally referred to as the Bag Waste Reduction Law, went into effect on October 19th, 2020, and was followed by a two-month grace period to help establishments and customers adjust to the new rules. The grace period ended last December, and retailers who give out plastic bags can be fined $250 for the first offense and up to $500 if the behavior continues.
The regulations for the ban broadly prohibit the use of single-use plastic bags but make specific exceptions for certain uses, such as to wrap raw meat or fish, or for food deliveries by local restaurants.
While chain stores and supermarkets tend to be in compliance, many smaller privately owned groceries, delis, and supermarkets still give customers plastic bags with their groceries.
Many locations we reached out to refused to comment on the matter, but a cashier at one establishment told us that the owners have kept stock of plastic bags in a warehouse and have been using them despite the ban.
Salwa, from Bay Ridge, worked at a local supermarket through the pandemic until last fall, witnessing the implementation of the ban.
She told us that while the supermarket is now compliant with the ban, they were unable to institute it right away – not only did they still have many unused plastic bags on-site but also because many customers complained.
“When we started selling paper bags instead of plastic bags, customers would get frustrated,” she said. “People who did a lot of grocery shopping were not willing to pay for paper bags and complained about them because they were not as sturdy as the plastic ones.”
The Department of Environmental Conservation is receiving pressure from locals and environmental groups to more strictly implement the ban.
When Enrique, a Sheepshead Bay resident, first noticed that shops were not complying with the law, he began to send weekly emails to the DEC. He told us that despite his efforts, the DEC has not responded constructively in any way, and many of the locations he reported continue to give out plastic bags.
Reidun from Bay Ridge told us that workers at local delis often insist that customers take a plastic bag, even if they don’t need one.
“I don’t know where they’re getting them from because at one point they ran out, and now they have them again,” she said.
Protocols for enforcement are very limited. While the DEC encourages individuals to report stores that continue to use plastic bags, establishments found in violation are only fined.
Last fall DEC told the New York Post it will “continue to conduct extensive outreach to stakeholders, including grocery stores, retailers, and others” to enforce the ban.
When emailed with concerns about violations, they sent back generic responses.
“It is illegal for a store owner to provide plastic bags to the customers. Whether you’re going to the grocery store, clothes shopping, or to a home improvement store, make sure to bring your reusable bags,” the email read.
Last month, the DEC received backlash from environmental organizations and businesses who argued that the ban’s exemptions and rules lacked clarity, and that the legislation itself was ill-conceived. While DEC has since amended regulations, they did not provide any information about improving enforcement.
Many businesses, after suffering pandemic-related financial issues, have been struggling to uphold the ban, as paper bags cost more than single-use plastic bags. Bodega owners told the New York Post that while packs of 600 single-use plastic bags cost $11, a pack of 200 paper bags can cost up to $50.
The DEC has also not offered solutions for business owners suffering financial deficits – in-store paper bag fees, meant to encourage customers to use reusable bags, are collected from vendors by the DEC to fund environmental projects, and not kept by store owners.
DEC did not respond to our request for comment.
For information about what types of reusable bags to use, read this. If you are a retailer or business owner who wants to learn more, here is the full DEC guide. If you want to submit a report to the DEC or make your voice heard, you can fill out an electronic complaint, send an email via firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 518-402-8706 to speak with a representative.