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Some worry if New York’s coming plastic bag ban is enough

February 17, 2020 GMT
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In this March 27, 2019 file photo, a man leaves a supermarket in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan carrying his groceries in a plastic bag. New York retailers have begun giving up single-use plastic bags as the state prepares for the March 1, 2020, implementation of a ban aimed at reducing pollution. But some worry the state's new regulations include a loophole that could potentially allow stores to phase in plastic bags thick enough to be considered multiuse. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
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In this March 27, 2019 file photo, a man leaves a supermarket in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan carrying his groceries in a plastic bag. New York retailers have begun giving up single-use plastic bags as the state prepares for the March 1, 2020, implementation of a ban aimed at reducing pollution. But some worry the state's new regulations include a loophole that could potentially allow stores to phase in plastic bags thick enough to be considered multiuse. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York retailers have begun giving up single-use plastic bags as the state prepares for the March 1 implementation of a ban aimed at reducing pollution, but many of those who support a move away from plastic are worried the new law doesn’t go far enough.

The law bars many types of businesses from using the thin plastic bags that have been clogging up landfills, getting tangled in trees and accumulating in lakes and seas. Single-use paper bags will still be allowed, but counties have the option of imposing a 5 cent fee.

As the deadline to drop plastic bags nears, though, not all environmentalists are ready to celebrate.

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Some worry the state’s new regulations include a loophole that could allow stores to skirt the ban by handing out plastic bags thick enough to be considered suitable for multiple uses.

“It is a giant loophole which they should close in the future,” said Judith Enck, a former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who now leads the environmental advocacy group Beyond Plastics. “It’s not good for the environment if you go from thinner plastic bags to thicker plastic bags.”

A final version of the regulations was released Monday and removed some provisions that plastic bag critics found objectionable, but they said the rules still fell short.

The regulations allow stores to hand out plastic bags if they are washable, can be used at least 125 times, carry 22 pounds (10 kg) over at least 175 feet (53 meters), and have an attached strap that doesn’t stretch with normal use. Regulators also proposed that any reusable plastic bags be at least one-hundredth of an inch thick. That’s thicker than required in California, which also limits the use of single-use plastic bags.

A spokesman for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the ban last year, dismissed concerns about the regulation being too flexible.

“These groups should stop promoting baseless conspiracy theories and focus their efforts on helping New Yorkers transition to re-usable bags,” spokesman Jason Conwall said.

Shoppers are encouraged to start using sturdy reusable bags, such as those made of canvas or polyester, said Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. His agency says the plastic industry probably lacks the machinery to produce thicker plastic bags that meet New York’s proposed standard and still be cost-effective.

“There’s always a period of transition where there’s resistance or uncertainty,” Seggos told The Associated Press.

Some environmentalists also worried that the rules, as initially proposed, allowed state regulators to make exemptions for thin plastic bags “for which there is no reasonable or practicable alternative.”

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That phrase was deleted in the final regulations released Monday, and a list of specific exceptions was narrowed. There are still exemptions for pet stores to sell goldfish in plastic bags or dry cleaners to slip a plastic bag over a garment, among other exceptions.

Several major chains, including the grocer Wegmans, have already made the switch away from plastic.

Convenience store owners want to be exempt them from the ban, which already excludes bags used for restaurant takeout food, plastic bags used to wrap meat, and bags used for prepared food.

Jim Calvin, president of the state Association of Convenience Stores, said owners of small convenience stores are also feeling “anxiety” about having enough paper bags to go around by March 1.

Matthew Hamory, a managing director in the retail practice at AlixPartners LLP, said it’s unclear how exactly the ban will impact the market for paper bags, though it is clear that “New York will be adding an enormous amount of retail outlets who are using paper bags.”

Plastic bag manufacturers are also calling for New York to delay or weaken its ban because of concerns over the supply of multiuse bags.

“Retailers who typically buy their bags months in advance are staring down the barrel of implementation that they just cannot comply with,” said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance.

Seggos said his agency is aware of concerns about paper bag shortages and has purchased over a quarter-million reusable bags the state will give out to food pantries and shelters.

“The industry has known this has been coming for 10 months,” he said.