Chairman of the Albany County Legislature Andrew Joyce at the meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 12 (Jim Franco/Spotlight News)
ALBANY — By March 2020, New York state retailers who hand out plastic bags will get fined. And in Albany County, a paper bag will cost you a nickel as per the “Reusable Shopping Bag Incentive Act” approved by the Legislature by a vote of 22-14 on Tuesday, Nov. 12.
Albany County is one of many municipalities across the state that opted to force retailers to charge a nickel per paper bag at the register. According to state law, 40 percent, or 2 cents, will go to Albany County to purchase reusable bags for lower income people and for programs to educate and promote the benefits of reusable bags. Sixty percent, or 3 cents, will go to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.
The fee does not apply to any customer using the supplemental nutrition assistance program or special nutrition program for women, infants and children.
“The goal of charging the nickel is an incentive to get people to bring their own, reusable bags to retail stores to carry out their merchandise,” said Legislator Joanne Cunningham, D-Delmar, a sponsor of the local law. “A fee on paper bags will help to incentivize consumers to bring their own reusable bags. This is the goal we are aiming for — reduce plastic use and reuse our bags when we shop.”
Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, who spoke in favor of implementing the fee at the public comment period, said she would work to modify how the fee money is distributed with ideally some going to the retailer.
Legislator Mark Grimm, R-Guilderland, said the fact 60 percent of the fee is being kicked up to the state is why he voted against the measure.
“The bag fee is one more way the state has of reaching in your pocket,” he said. “Sixty percent is going back to the state even though it is produced by county taxpayers.”
The bill now heads to the desk of County Executive Dan McCoy to either veto it or sign it into law.
According to the governor’s office, New Yorkers use an estimated 23 billion plastic bags a year, and nationwide studies show that about 50 percent of single-use plastic bags end up as litter. In addition to preventing plastic bag litter in the environment, the ban’s aim is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic bag production and disposal, from the petroleum used to produce the bags to emissions from the transportation of bags to landfills.
“You see plastic bags hanging in trees, blowing down the streets, in landfills and in our waterways, and there is no doubt they are doing tremendous damage,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement when he signed the bill banning plastic bags on Earth Day earlier this year.
On March 1, 2020, New York will join Hawaii and California in banning the use of single-use plastic bags.
A yet to be specified Albany County department will oversee implementation of the fee program and enforce the new law, which will apply to any retailer required to collect sales tax on the merchandise it sells.
Some bags are exempt under the law, so plastic bags may still be distributed to consumers in a certain circumstances such as a bag used by a pharmacy to carry prescription drugs, a grocery store to carry uncooked meet and fish and produce bags for bulk items such as fruits and vegetables, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
In addition to state Environmental Conservation Law penalties, retailers in Albany County will receive a written warning for a first violation of the law. The second violation will earn a $100 fine, the third violation equals a $250 fine and a fourth violation will cost the retailer $500. For each subsequent violation, the fine will be $100 a day until compliance is achieved.
Stores are prohibited from passing along any fines to employees, according to the Albany County law.
Stores are not required to offer paper bags, which are more expensive, bulkier and not as easy to handle as plastic bags. The storage of paper bags is more of an issue than plastic too because of their size and the fact they attract vermin. Since the retailer does not get any of the nickel fee, many stores may simply not offer any type of bag. Retailers could also opt to only sell reusable bags at checkout.
A reusable bag, according to the DEC is any bag “made of cloth or other machine washable fabric that has handles or a durable bag with handles that is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse.”
A “durable bag” has a minimum of 125 uses, with each use the “equivalent to carrying a minimum of 22 pounds over a distance of 175 feet, according to the DEC. It must have a capacity of at least 15 liters and a minimum fabric weight of 80 Grams per Square Meter, which is a measurement of polypropylene density. The higher the GSM the more durable the bag. A reusable bag cannot be made of “film plastic, bioplastic, biodegradable materials, compostable plastic, plant-based materials or decomposable materials,” according to the DEC.