State DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos at the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, Jim Franco/Spotlight News
COLONIE — Ahead of a state-wide ban on plastic bags set to go in effect on March 1, a quarter million reusable bags will be distributed to food pantries and shelters.
“We are transitioning people to reusable bags and part of the obligation on us is to get them to those who need them the most and can’t afford them,” said state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, during a stop at the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York on Tuesday, Feb. 11.
Meanwhile, a law passed by the Albany County Legislature in November, 2019 to implement a nickel tax on paper bags has run into some problems with the state. According to the Times Union, state Tax Department ruled the county law does not meet state guidelines and if the county wants to opt into the program, that would give 3 cents to the state Environmental Protection Fund and 2 cents to the county, it will have to re-work the law and vote on it again.
Retailers have been preparing for the transition to paper bags for about a year and can still charge customers for paper bags if they so choose or they can sell re-usable bags at the checkout.
The goal of the ban, which is already enacted in Hawaii and California, is to change the consumer’s mindset from relying on one-time disposable plastic bags to bringing their own, reusable bags to the store while shopping.
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 bags end up in the environment as litter.
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. Since the retailer does not get any of the nickel fee, many stores may simply not offer any type of bag or charge for paper bags in addition to the tax. 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.
Seggos, while at the warehouse that moved some 40 million pounds of food last year to feed some 300,000 people, touted a 2019 law that will kick in in 2022 requiring large generators of waste food to donate that which is edible and recycle that which is not.
He said about 25 percent of the food produced, one out of every four bites, ends up in landfills. In New York, that equates to about 3.9 million ton a year, which biodegrades and becomes a greenhouse gas, methane.
“That waste contrasted to the 13 percent of New Yorkers who are hungry or at the risk of going hungry and that is a truly unacceptable situation,” Seggos said.
He also announced $4.3 million in state grants to fund 111 projects across the state that are geared for food donation.
“We are involved in feeding hungry people in our community,” said Mark Quandt, the food bank’s executive director. “We are fortunate to live in a place where the people care and government cares.”