Plastic and paper both have their environmental drawbacks. Plastic bags have become international targets of activists and governments because they are made from fossil fuels, choke marine life, litter roadways, gum up recycling machines, break down into toxic “microplastics” that can enter the food chain and are difficult to recycle. With paper bags, trees have to be cut to produce them, they require prodigious amounts of water to make, and — since they are bulkier and heavier than plastics — require more tractor trailers to transport.
Jennie Romer, founder of plasticbaglaws.org and a Manhattan-based sustainability consultant who has worked across the country on bag laws, said the two most proven ways to reduce disposable bags are a ban on plastic, coupled with a mandatory fee on paper, or putting fees on both paper and plastic, like Suffolk County has had in place since 2018. The only exception on plastic in Suffolk is to pack produce and meats.
Some other cities — including San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Honolulu — that banned plastic bags, but allowed free paper, saw an uptick in paper use, said Romer, who worked on the plastic bag ban in California that included a 10-cent fee on other bags.
Suffolk’s 5-cent plastic law will be supplanted by the new state law, according to the governor’s office. The county, which also has passed bans on plastic straws and Styrofoam, is expected to implement a 5-cent fee on paper bags, effective when the new state law is in place. The New York City Council last month approved a 5-cent fee on paper, effective March 1, 2020, when the state plastic ban takes effect. Nassau County’s legislative leader said he won’t pass a fee on paper.
“I understand the arguments made about plastic bags,” said Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), presiding officer of the Nassau legislature. “They’re not biodegradable. They linger in landfills for years and years. It doesn’t apply to paper bags.”
But in order to change consumer behavior, environmentalists say, a fee on paper is necessary. “It comes down to, is your goal to prevent plastic in the ocean? Or is the goal to promote environmental sustainability with reusable bags? New York had a golden opportunity to do both, and blew it,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator for the region who now teaches about plastic pollution at Bennington College.
Still, Enck added that the bill passed by the state was better than nothing. “I’m glad they passed what they did,” she said.Assemb . Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), the environmental committee chair who long has fought against single-use plastics, including bags, called the bill “a reasonably good outcome” and suggested the law could be amended in the future to mandate a statewide fee.