New York’s Plastic Bag Ban Has Faced A Rocky First Year


“Plastic Bags Blow!” by katerha is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Elisha V

On March 1 2020, New York State took a monumental step in the fight against climate change and pollution – banning grocery stores from using plastic bags. The Bag Waste Reduction Law also mandates businesses to charge a 5-cent fee for paper bags, boosting the incentives for customers to bring their own reusable bags. However, faced with a pandemic and a NYS Supreme Court lawsuit, the plastic bag ban has faced a rocky first year. Unfortunately, this serves as one, local example of how complicated environmental laws can be.  

Just a couple of weeks after the law came into effect and defying the new ban would be excused as COVID battered New York. Fears over the risks of contaminated surfaces meant that many grocery stores barred customers from bringing in their reusable. A large group of international epidemiologists, however, have scientifically argued against the claim of unsanitary reusable bags. Because COVID is primarily spread through airborne droplets – not contaminated surfaces – reusable bags are perfectly safe to use if washed regularly.

Plastic companies and lobbying groups have capitalized on these COVID health fears and perpetuated the fear-mongering image of reusable bags being “virus-laden” “petri dishes” to increase their sales. Beyond plastic grocery bags, plastic waste has spiked during the pandemic, particularly due to masks, gloves, and other PPE, as well as the boom in restaurant takeout containers. Over the pandemic, businesses and governments have tried to prioritize safety and recession relief, which is completely understandable and commendable, but this also means diverting attention and funding away from environmental priorities and reversing some of the progress made. This highlights an ever-present paradox in the world of policy: when you try to help solve one issue, you can be indirectly worsening another (often, more long term) issue.

In response to these COVID fears, New York allowed a grace period for grocery stores to continue selling plastic bags until October, when the Department of Environmental Conservation officially began enforcing the up to $500 fines for violating the ban.

But is the DEC thoroughly enforcing it? A grocery chain store near me, Foodtown, has continued to use plastic bags all year. When my mother has repeatedly asked the checkout clerks why, they have said that they’re simply using up their plastic bag supply. My mother has also reported the store via the DEC complaint form – who told her they are too understaffed to investigate at the moment – and to our local City Council member – who has not responded. Whether using up supply is a valid excuse or not, it’s clear that a relatively large grocery chain can get away with violating the ban. 


Considering how normalized single use-plastic bags came to be (the state used to use and discard over 23 billion bags annually), shifting to paper or reusable is an inevitable adjustment for both customers and businesses. For customers, plastic bags were a convenient default before the ban – but they are now paying 5 cents for a bag that is less durable, heavier, and not waterproof. Paper bags are also considerably more expensive, placing a burden on small businesses. NYC Bodega owners opposed to the ban reported that a 200-pack of paper bags costs $50 whereas a 600-pack of plastic bags costs $11. Clerks may also feel guilty for demanding well-known customers to either pay 5-cents a paper bag or to suddenly become accustomed to bringing reusable bags from home, which is the optimal solution. However, similarly to how reusable cloth masks are the most environmentally friendly mask options which aren’t as effective as medical-grade masks, universal usage of reusable shopping bags would not be a flawless solution. Changing people’s attitudes and habits is no small feat and one of the biggest hurdles for advancing environmental legislation, especially when customers are so used to the convenience of free plastic shopping bags. 

While banning plastic bags is seemingly one of the best ways of curbing people’s everyday polluting behaviors, it requires significant public support, money, and a shift in attitudes. Banning plastic will not suddenly fix the pollution and climate change emergencies because single-use paper bags are also polluting (especially because many stores are double bagging them to make them sturdier for customers) and considerably more expensive for the business side. 

When the pandemic eventually fades away, attention will hopefully pivot back to environmental priorities.