New York’s plastic bag ban is broken

Update: February 4, 2020 – Leading Independent Market Research Firm Warns of Significant Bag Shortage for New York

There is no doubt – the pending plastic bag ban in New York is broken. But the good news is there is a compromise plan for success and it’s been proven right here in the Empire State.

While well intentioned, New York’s ban goes too far and too fast and creates a number of significant problems for shoppers, retailers, and New York manufacturers. At a local level, there are more than 20 laws regulating plastic bags. 90% of these laws offer an option that has proven to dramatically reduce the number of plastic bags used while making sure shoppers have options to carry their goods and groceries homes.

Without a compromise, many grocery stores and especially smaller retailers, bodegas, and convenience stores will soon be without any bags to offer their customers. There are widespread reports of paper bag shortages across the U.S., and the availability of imported reusable bags is in question due to manufacturing capacity in Southeast Asia and now the quarantines in China due to the Coronavirus.

Suffolk County is the largest local government in New York to adopt of single-use plastic bag ban and just last year reported a drop of more than 81% for plastic bags and 79% for paper bags.1 Their ban has been reported as a tremendous success without significant issues for shoppers or businesses. If the State of New York adopts Suffolk County’s legislation, they can expect this success statewide. Retailers and shoppers will be forced to adapt, but they will be able to adapt—unlike the current plan where the options do not exist.

Part 351, Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling will lead to significant market disruptions.

New York is the first state to pass a ban on both single-use plastic retail bags as well as film plastic reusable bags. Based on estimates using historic public data from the United States International Trade Commission2 and Clemson University,3 and considering that some customers will switch to reusable bags, it is estimated that retailers in New York will need 3-4 billion paper bags each year to meet demand. Preliminary retailer paper bag requests to meet the March 2020 implementation date support this estimate.

However, the total North American reserve capacity to meet new demand for New York is ~0.7 billion bags. Conversations with retailers suggest no remaining sources in North America, and the majority of New York retailers have not secured paper bag supply for the long term.

New York will have a shortfall of about 3 billion paper bags. It is also expected that the significant imbalance in supply and demand will have financial impacts across the entire North American market space. Retailers around the country will struggle to provide paper bags for their customers, and when available, the cost of paper bags will be astronomical.

Part 351, Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling will burden New York’s retailers and most vulnerable communities.

Plastic retail bags are low cost, sanitary, highly reused, and the preferred option for many consumers and retailers. Switching to paper or reusable bags is costly for retailers, especially small businesses and grocery stores who operate on razor-thin profit margins. For example, when San Francisco implemented its plastic bag ban in 2012, large grocery stores reported $80,000 per year in extra costs. In 2019, large grocery stores on the East Coast reported more than $200,000 per year in increased costs when a plastic bag ban is implemented. Due to market disruptions resulting in skyrocketing paper bag prices as well as plastic bag bans being implemented around the country, it’s safe to assume that in 2020, retail stores will be faced with even more astronomical costs when switching entirely to paper bags. Inevitably, these costs get passed down to consumers in the form of higher prices, which impacts low-income communities the most.

Some counties in New York will impose a 5-cent paper bag fee to further encourage people to switch to reusable bags. A 2016 study from the University of Ottawa examined the effectiveness of Toronto’s 5-cent bag fee. It found that the bag fee was highly effective in encouraging people who already used reusable bags to use them more frequently, while having no effect on infrequent users. The effects were limited to households with high socioeconomic status, as people with lower socioeconomic status appear to have been unaffected by the behavioral prompt.4 Simply put, the people paying this bag fee will be the ones who can least afford it. This fee will directly add costs to grocery bills by either charging for each bag or forcing consumers to buy other, more expensive bags.

However, since there is not sufficient capacity to provide the amount of paper bags that New York retailers need, there is a risk that paper bags simply won’t be available at all. This burden will be felt the most in New York’s most dense, diverse, and populated areas where public transportation is the primary way people get around. In New York City, bodegas and delis may not be able to obtain paper bags for their customers – either because the business can’t afford to purchase them in bulk, or because they simply aren’t available. For a city where the primary mode of transport is the subway or the bus, New Yorkers may simply be out of luck on days where they forget to pack their reusable bags.

Part 351, Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling goes much farther than the majority of plastic bag regulations around the country and around the world.

California established the first statewide definition in the United States for a reusable plastic film bag: 2.25 mils in thickness and capable of 125 or more uses carrying 22 or more pounds over a distance of at least 175 feet. In New York, there has been a desire to go much farther than California and ban all types of plastic film bags. However, California’s plastic bag ban is actually one of the stricter laws in the world, going much farther than most other countries.

Europe is known for their regulations of single-use plastic products, and they are often cited as a model for banning plastic bags and other items. The European Union placed restrictions on single-use plastic bags in 2015 with Directive (EU) 2015/720.5 This law directed EU member states to reduce consumption of plastic bags less than 50 microns, which is 1.9685 mils. There are no restrictions on bags above 50 microns, or about 2 mils, as they are considered reusable in Europe. Reusable bags above the 50-micron threshold are commonly available for sale at grocery and retail stores throughout Europe.

Example reusable bag standards throughout the United States and around the world

Jurisdiction Reusable bag standard – mils / microns
European Union 1.97 mils / 50 microns
Sri Lanka 1.97 mils / 50 microns
India 1.97 mils / 50 microns
China 0.98 mils / 25 microns
Australia* 1.36 mils / 35 microns
South Africa 1.18 mils / 30 microns
New Zealand 2.76 mils / 70 microns
Fiji 1.97 mils / 50 microns
Thailand 1.42 mils / 36 microns
California 2.25 mils / 57 microns
Delaware 2.25 mils / 57 microns
Maine 4 mils / 101 microns
Oregon 4 mils / 101 microns
*Australia has no nationwide plastic bag ban. However, several Australian states as well as the country’s largest retailers have banned plastic bags less than 35 microns.

There are many reasons why countries with a single-use plastic bag ban allow for plastic film reusable bags. Anytime there is a blanket ban on a product, there will be unintended consequences. In the case of plastic bags, the unintended consequences include an increase in bags with a higher carbon footprint, the elimination of domestic manufacturing jobs, and the import of bags from other countries (typically Southeast Asia). When compared to paper, cloth, and other reusable totes, reusable plastic film bags (such as the 50-micron bags used in Europe and the 2.25 mil bags used in California) are still the best option at the checkout counter in terms of sustainability and resource efficiency. In most places, the reusable plastic film bags typically aren’t handed out for free and do have a fee attached – which encourages people to reuse the bags. Many countries even include a minimum recycled content requirement for these products, as well, which boosts the recycling market for plastic bags and film.

In any country comparable to the United States, a blanket ban on all plastic film bags is unprecedented, unnecessary, and will lead to significant market disruptions and unintended consequences.

Part 351, Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling all but guarantees that almost every bag used in New York will be made overseas.

The vast majority of conventional plastic retail bags are manufactured domestically, supporting tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs. However, the vast majority of reusable totes, such as the kind available for $1-2 at the grocery store checkout counter, are made overseas – primarily in China, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries. Instead of compromise policies that protect U.S. manufacturing jobs, New York has turned its back on American workers and has instead chosen to support countries that are some of the worst polluters in the world.

Recycling is a key priority for plastic bag manufacturers, and it is working.

At many grocery stores and major retail chains, you will find a bin for recycling plastic bags and other types of plastic wraps and films. To some, these may just be another recycling bin, but to us, they are the core of our industry. Our members – the companies who make plastic bags – established early on that they did not want to see their products going directly to the landfill after one use, so they invented a way to recycle plastic bags. They did so without any sort of mandate or government regulation. After plastic bags are returned to grocery and retail stores, APBA members and other companies buy those plastic bags back from the retailer (along with other polyethylene wraps and films) and transport them to recycling facilities where they are eventually turned into new bags, railroad ties, composite lumber, asphalt, and much more. Today, APBA members are not only in the manufacturing business but also in the recycling business, recycling hundreds of millions of pounds of plastic bags and film each year.

Recycling plastic bags and film is a core part of our business – and it works. While we often hear that recycling is ineffective because China and other countries stopped taking our waste and recycling, this doesn’t apply to plastic bags and film. In 2017, 81% of plastic bags and film returned for recycling at U.S. retail stores were reclaimed by U.S. and Canadian recyclers.6 This number (the most recent one we have) is from a time when China was still taking our recycling as their “National Sword” policy started in 2018. Today, it’s safe to assume that an even greater percentage of plastic bags and film are being reclaimed by U.S. and Canadian recyclers.

Plastic bags are the most sustainable option at the checkout counter – as long as they are disposed of properly.

Every life cycle assessment of carryout bags has found that plastic is the best option at the checkout counter in terms of sustainability and resource efficiency. For example, Recyc-Québec, a government recycling agency based in Canada, released a study in December 2017, which found that the overall lifecycle of the plastic bag—from its production to the end of its life—has far less environmental impact compared with other bags.7 In fact, Recyc- Québec specifically recommends against using a cotton bag due to its significant carbon footprint, requiring between 100 and 2,954 uses for its environmental impact to be equivalent to the environmental impacts of the conventional plastic bag.

Additionally, in a February 2018 study, Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency concluded that lightweight plastic carrier bags provide “the absolute best environmental performance.”8 Also, it is important to note that plastic bags are made from a byproduct of natural gas refining (not oil). This is the same natural gas used to heat homes and cook with. Without turning this byproduct into plastic bags, it would otherwise have to be burned off, which would pollute the air with greenhouse gases.

Plastic bags make up a small percentage of both municipal solid waste and litter. Banning them will not have a meaningful impact on either category.

Many believe that plastic retail bags are filling up landfills, but this simply isn’t true. Plastic retail bags make up a very small percentage of trash. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data shows that plastic “bags and sacks” make up 0.3% of the nation’s municipal solid waste.9 Plastic retail bags are a fraction of this number. Additionally, the most recent statewide litter study in the United States, commissioned by the New Jersey Clean Communities Council, found that branded plastic retail bags make up 0.8% of litter in New Jersey.10 We never want to see any of our products disposed of improperly, but with such a small share of litter and waste derived from bags, a bag ban simply won’t provide a meaningful improvement in either category.

Plastic bags are reused at high rates. Banning them means that people will need to buy products that use more plastic and have a greater carbon footprint.

According to Recyc- Québec, nearly 78% of people reuse their “single-use” plastic bags, most often as a small trash can liner or to pick up pet waste.11 Research from the University of Sydney found that after California’s plastic bag ban, the sales of thicker, more resource-intensive plastic trash bags skyrocketed.12 Once plastic bags were banned, Californians started buying trash bags for their everyday use instead of reusing the shopping bags that they were previously getting at no charge. Coupled with an increase in paper bag usage, the research found that California’s plastic bag ban increased in carbon emissions.

Overall, Part 351, Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling misses the mark on sustainability, but there is a way for New York to be a leader on this issue without unduly burdening low-income shoppers and small businesses. Here is our proposed compromise.

Suffolk County created the blue print for success on this issue. In January 2018, they implemented a ban on single-use plastics bags, which included a minimum 5-cent fee on paper and reusable bags. They defined a reusable bag as:
“…a bag with handles that is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse and is either: (1) made of cloth or other machine washable material, but not film plastic; or (2) made of durable plastic that is at least 2.25 mils thick.”

Suffolk County’s bag law led to great success in reducing the number of single-use bags used in stores. On March 1, 2019 – 13 months after the county’s plastic bag ban implementation – the county’s Department of Health Services released a progress report stating that the new law led to an 81.7% decrease in plastic bags and a 78.8% decrease in paper bags being used in the county.13 Subsequently, Newsday published an article with the headline, “Suffolk plastic bag use down by 1.1 billion, report says.”14

For the State of New York, there is a path to success that will ban single-use plastics bags and achieve the state’s environmental goals without dramatically increasing costs for consumers and businesses, causing market disruptions, and all but guaranteeing that most retail bags in New York are made overseas by some of the worst polluters in the world. Many localities around the U.S. and most countries around the world that have implemented single-use plastic bag bans allow for film plastic reusable bags. If New York would do the same, it would help both consumers and business owners by assuring that come March 1, there will be a low-cost- reusable, and recyclable carryout bag option at the checkout counter.

Compromise can be found, and we stand ready to engage in discussions to find that compromise.

 

1. Sortino, Christopher, “Annual Recycling Report, Progress of Single-Use Carryout Bag Reduction” (2019). County of Suffolk, Department of Health Services.

2. U.S. International Trade Commission, “Polyethylene Retail Carrier Bags from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam” (2016). Publication 4605.

3. Kimmel, Sc.D., Robert M., “Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Bags in Common Use in the United States” (2014). Environmental Studies.

4. Rivers, Nicholas and Shenstone-Harris, Sarah and Young, Nathan, “Using Nudges to Reduce Waste? The Case of Toronto’s Plastic Bag Levy” (2016).

5. Directive (EU) 2015/720 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2015 amending Directive 94/62/EC as regards reducing the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags.

6. More Recycling for the American Chemistry Council, “2017 National Post-Consumer Plastic Bag & Film Recycling Report” (2019).

7. RECYC-QUÉBEC, “Environmental and Economic Highlights of the Results of the Life Cycle Assessment of Shopping Bags” (2017).

8. Ministry of Environment and Food in Denmark, “Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags” (2018). The Danish Environmental Protection Agency.

9. United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2016 and 2017 Tables and Figures” (2019).

10. New Jersey Clean Communities Council, Inc. by Environmental Resources Planning, LLC, “2018 New Jersey Litter Study” (2018).

11. RECYC-QUÉBEC, “Environmental and Economic Highlights of the Results of the Life Cycle Assessment of Shopping Bags” (2017).

12. Taylor, Rebecca, “Bag ‘Leakage’: The Effect of Disposable Carryout Bag Regulations on Unregulated Bags” (2018).

13. Sortino, Christopher, “Annual Recycling Report, Progress of Single-Use Carryout Bag Reduction” (2019). County of Suffolk, Department of Health Services.

14. Parrish, Tory, “Suffolk plastic bag use down by 1.1 billion, report says” (2019). Newsday.

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