On March 1, New York state’s plastic bag ban and Tompkins County’s paper bag fee went into full effect, and residents and business owners alike are still getting used to the new normal.
For businesses and residents who already made the switch well before the start of the month, the law had relatively little impact, but for those who hadn’t switched, adjusting to such a large change can be a bit of a challenge.
“I can understand how people can be a bit frustrated with not having any plastic bags,” said Casey Stebbins, a cashier at Wegmans who’s seen a variety of reactions from plenty of customers. “Some people don’t like having to pay five cents for a paper bag, and then there are some folks who are very supportive of it.”
New York state’s law specifies that “Any person required to collect New York state sales tax will no longer be able to provide plastic carryout bags … to their customers,” according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Exemptions include bags used solely to wrap food like meat or fish, bags sold as trash bags, food storage bags (i.e., sandwich bags), bags used for prescriptions, newspaper bags and others. Restaurants that provide plastic bags for takeout purposes are also exempt, and organizations that don’t collect sales tax, like libraries, can provide plastic bags as well.
Tompkins County is one of three state counties to opt in to the paper bag fee in addition to the plastic bag ban, with a five-cent fee applied to each paper bag used at stores to which the ban already applies. SNAP and WIC recipients are exempt from the fee.
Three of the five cents goes back to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, while the remaining two cents goes to the county for “the purpose of purchasing and distributing reusable bags, with priority given to low- and fixed-income communities,” according to the county website.
Wegmans was one of the first Tompkins County stores to phase out single-use plastic bags at checkout, making the switch at its Ithaca and Corning stores in July 2019. As Jason Wadsworth, Wegmans packaging and sustainability manager, explained, the move was meant to help adjust to any challenges well ahead of time.
“Because eliminating plastic grocery bags isn’t as simple as just removing them from our stores, we knew early on we couldn’t wait until the March 1, 2020, deadline,” he said. “We started with a two-store pilot in July to understand the true impact, how we could make the transition out of plastic bags seamless for our employees and customers and how we could help our customers make the shift to reusable bags.”
Wadsworth said Wegmans used that extra time to its advantage, making adjustments so by the time March 1 hit, employees and customers were better prepared.
“By the time we removed plastic bags from all our New York stores, we had six months of learning from the pilot,” Wadsworth said. “Still, when you take a two-store pilot and implement your learnings across 45 stores all at once, you’re going to encounter things you didn’t anticipate. Eliminating plastic bags requires employees and customers to create new habits, and that takes time.”
Smaller stores like the Lansing Market and Clark’s Shur Fine in Dryden made the switch this month. The state will not be charging stores a fine for giving out plastic bags at checkout until April 1, so Lansing Market used that leeway to use up its remaining supply of plastic bags. After those ran out within the first week of March, the store now sells reusable bags and provides free boxes for customers to use.
Rich Cargen, store manager for the Lansing Market, said the store has decided not to provide paper bags due to the added cost.
“It costs the store eight cents per bag,” Cargen said. “It’s just an extra step that we have to maintain here at store level, so it’s just not worth the effort.”
That dissonance between the extra cost of providing paper instead of plastic while none of the paper bag fee goes back to the store was also a concern of Mike Clark, store manager of Clark’s Shur Fine.
“My only problem with it is that Tompkins County … has mandated a five-cent fee on a paper bag, and that five-cent fee has to be turned over to the county,” Clark said. “At the present time, our paper bags are going to cost us 10 cents apiece.”
Mildred Warner, a Cornell University professor of city and regional planning, is a fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, who lead a project that resulted in the creation of a guide for regulating plastic bags. She’s raised concerns about this added cost herself.
“Where the law could be improved is in allowing counties to impose a higher fee – closer to the actual costs of plastic bag clean up,” Warner said in an announcement from Cornell’s media relations office. “Had New York state increased that fee, it could have left more of those funds in the hands of counties, which bear the costs of waste management and recycling.”
Barb Eckstrom, director of the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management, said she can understand that challenge for businesses, and she has provided resources on the department’s website to help businesses and residents alike.
“These are businesses,” Eckstrom said. “They’re going to have to find a way to recoup the cost of the paper bags, and my recommendation is to push reusable bags so you don’t have that problem. That’s clearly what this is all about.”
The ban is also presenting some challenges for consumers who aren’t used to the practice.
Ty Hallott said he has an elderly grandmother at home who sometimes has trouble remembering the reusable bags and often has to buy more every time she goes to the store, leading to a large stack of bags back at home.
“I feel the same way,” Hallot said. “I finally have gotten a rhythm, but it took me a little time to remember to bring in the bags, so I ended up spending more.”
Michael Anderson has encountered a similar problem with his reusable bags.
“I just have a vehicle full of a bunch of them,” he said. “The challenge is remembering to bring it in, so sometimes, it needs another trip to the car, but at least that avoids having to buy another bag. It’s a bit of an inconvenience because I wasn’t used to remembering a bag every time.”
Even Wegmans, with a clientele that tends to use reusable bags much of the time, has encountered a similar issue with folks forgetting to bring the bags they’ve already purchased into the store.
Through a companywide survey, Wegmans learned that 95% of its customers already owned at least one reusable bag, and 87% had three or more. But that survey also revealed that the top reason customers would still use the plastic bag option is because they forgot their reusable bags in the car or at home.
Wadsworth said this was something Wegmans realized in its pilot program and found a solution for by the time the law took effect.
“Shoppers are accustomed to receiving plastic bags at checkout, and losing that option requires a significant change,” he said. “To help our customers remember their bags, we created new, eye-catching reusable bag reminder signs and strategically placed them throughout our parking lots and store entrances.”
Catherine Morgan is one such Wegmans customer who started using the reusable bags she had because of Wegmans’ switch.
“I’ve had these reusable bags forever, and I just didn’t use them because there was always an option,” she said. “Now, there’s no option, and I’m using them, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Other customers expressed that the loss of single-use plastic bags means a loss of versatile bags for at-home use.
“You take your bags home, you put them where they need to be, there’s no waste associated with that,” Paul David said.
Tammy Buck, while in favor of the ban as a whole, said she’s also finding difficulty finding alternatives for at-home usage.
“The bag ban is great, except I’m going to miss my kitty litter disposal bags,” Buck said.
Brian Erle echoed that sentiment, adding that reducing is ultimately the most important practice.
“I think if people need plastic bags, they can buy them and be careful of their use,” Erle said.
And there are also customers who have rarely, if ever, used single-use plastic bags in the first place. One such customer is Wegmans shopper Kate McClintic, who said the ban had no effect on her daily life.
“Anything that can help our environment is great, and this is something that could potentially make a difference with thousands of people not using plastic bags,” she said.
The plastic bag ban is also influencing some unexpected places. Though libraries are exempt from the fee, the Tompkins County Public Library relies on plastic bag donations to provide users with bags for their borrowed items. With the ban now in effect, the library is expecting far fewer bag donations, said librarian Jennifer Schlossberg, head of access and circulation services.
“We haven’t intentionally phased out the plastic bags,” Schlossberg said. “Fewer people in the community have plastic bags to donate to us since stores like Wegmans discontinued them before the ban took effect, so in turn, we have fewer to distribute. We put up a sign telling people to bring their own bags in anticipation of the decrease.”
Since the library has never had a steady stream of plastic bags to give out to begin with, TCPL decided in 2015 to buy reusable tote bags that patrons can check out, take home and then return when they are finished.
“We were finding that we often didn’t have plastic bags for patrons who needed them and with the totes, we’d have more control of the inventory,” Schlossberg said. “As a bonus, they are good advertising for us to have people walking around with our name and logo on the bags.”
Overall, the plastic bag ban and paper bag fee can be confusing to understand and adjust to for both businesses and customers alike. Many business owners and local leaders recognize the large effect this could have on the community.
“We’ll have to get used to them,” Wadsworth said. “It’s a lot of consumer education. It’s a lot of retailer education. … We can get used to a different way of carrying our purchases.”
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