The Loopholes of the Plastic Bag Ban

Starting in May 2020, New York State will place a ban on all single-use plastic bags.


@inphltrate Instagram artist

Artist Inphltrate depicts a plastic bag that reads “no thank you” on the streets of Brooklyn, contradicting the trademark takeout bags that read, “thank you.”

From harming all marine life to creating environmental problems, plastic bags are hazardous to human beings and the environment. Today, the vast majority of our bags end up in landfills, incinerators, or waterways and the oceans. When plastic interacts with water, hazardous chemicals form, degrading water quality. Many animals also suffocate when they consume plastic that infiltrates their habitats. In an attempt to combat global plastic pollution, New York became the third state in April 2019 to pass a bill banning all single-use plastic bags. This bill went into effect on March 1, 2020. New York State is trying to publicize a new hashtag, #BYOBagNY, which stands for Bring Your Own Bag New York. Instead of plastic bags, individual counties are offering paper bags with a 5-cent fee, with 2 cents going to local governments and 3 cents to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. For a state that uses over 23 billion plastic bags annually, this is a promising first step to eliminate waste. However, there are some loopholes in the initiative that leaves room for improvement. 

Although the new law applies to most single-use plastic bags provided by grocery stores and other retailers, many bags are exempted from the regulation. Bags distributed at the meat/deli counter and bulk food area, newspaper bags, trash bags, garment bags, bags provided by a pharmacy for prescription drugs, and restaurant takeout bags, for example, are exempt from the plastic bag ban. On top of this, the government is considering any plastic bag that has the width of or thicker than ten millimeters, which is ten pennies stacked up on top of each other, to be “reusable” and “washable.” The state chose ten millimeters as the number because, at that thickness, they are no longer considered film plastic and are too expensive for stores to give away. However, no law will prevent stores from distributing thicker plastic bags. If stores demand commercial production of these bags, the larger amount of plastic required would lead to more plastic waste. Ten millimeters is still relatively thin, and many consumers would not consider these plastic bags to be reusable because they are still flimsy plastic. To truly discourage plastic bag use and reduce NYC’s plastic waste, there should be no “case-by-case” exemptions to the ban.

Although the use of reusable bags will likely increase as a result of the ban, there is a high chance that, during these transition periods, people will use paper bags more often. This leads to another shortcoming of the ban, as paper bags require 3.4 times more non-renewable energy, 17.3 times more water consumption and two times more emissions of greenhouse gases than plastic bags. Freedonia Custom Inc, a company that provides clients with unbiased and reliable industry market research and analysis, estimated that “80+% of users will prefer and therefore demand additional paper bags.” Based on current North American supply constraints, the corporation states that there will be a significant shortage of paper bags by nearly 3.5 billion units. Additionally, most of our reusable polypropylene bags are manufactured in China, and Freedonia Custom Inc estimates that there will be an additional 112 million reusable polypropylene bags in demand. However, the strategists from Freedonia Custom Inc. are also afraid that the delivery could be delayed because of the current shutdown due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

However, the new Plastic Bag Ban has been placed on hold until May 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. As grocery stores are one of the few businesses allowed to be open during this lockdown, the government has asked people to stop bringing reusable bags from their homes to protect the workers who are on the front lines of COVID-19. 

Considering that New York City is the most populous and influential city in America, we are setting a good example for other states and countries with this initiative. Nonetheless, we must consider the loopholes of the ban and make individual efforts, from bringing our own tote bags to backpacks, to effectively protect our environment.

To truly discourage plastic bag use and reduce NYC’s plastic waste, there should be no “case-by-case” exemptions to the ban.