The Village of New Paltz has passed a ban on single-use plastic bags — the kind typically used in supermarkets and other retail shops — set to go into effect this coming April. The law’s passage has garnered the threat of a lawsuit from one shopkeeper and encouraged a Town Board member to champion the idea of banning the bags throughout the town.
Reactions to the law around town are mixed, but even those in support have questions about what a village without plastic shopping bags might look like. While they’re designed as single use, many consumers do reuse them for other carrying jobs and as a receptacle for garbage. Many who shared their thoughts were doubtful that a ban in such a small community would have much impact on environmental issues.
Sitting on a retaining wall near the lower end of Main Street, Jared Pazienza of Rosendale ate a slice of pizza as he digested news of the ban. “People will have to think before they go shopping and be mindful,” was his reaction. But, “I use the ones I get for garbage at my house,” he added, wondering aloud what he would do if that supply ran out.
Down at Handmade & More, owner Melinda Minervini is bracing for what’s going to be a costly transition. “I buy my bags two years’ worth at a time to save money, and I just got a shipment,” she said. “I can’t buy more plastic bags,” she said. “I will respect that, but am I supposed to toss the ones I have in a landfill?”
Minervini isn’t sure she understands what the Village Board is trying to accomplish with this new law, or if its members considered the effects on local businesses, particularly with such a short time to get ready. “How much impact will it have in a very narrow village?” she questioned. “Why can ShopRite use them and I can’t?”
Minervini would prefer education over regulation and communication above all. “Why was this pushed through so quickly?” she asked. “If I’d known, I would have asked a lot of questions.”
While not entirely happy, she will follow the law, she said. “I have no problem supporting [the law], but we all need to learn about the alternatives, especially if we sell something on a rainy day.”
Minervini wondered what to do about the tourists among her customers, who won’t necessarily be prepared with a bag of their own. Still, more and more of the store’s customers refuse a bag, she said, estimating it at 25% and climbing.
Behind the counter of My Market on North Chestnut Street, Bill Hapemann said the number of customers who didn’t want bags was as high as 60%, although coworker Linda Riley didn’t think it was that many. “Those are our regular customers,” Hapemann said in clarification. For those who don’t, though, he asked, “What are they gonna use?”
Paper is made by killing trees, Hapemann pointed out. However, he added, “Like anything, people will adapt, like we did to wearing seat belts.”
Two customers outside of My Market wouldn’t give their names, but they shared some thoughts. “You just have to leave bags in your vehicle,” said one man, who added that in Paris, customers are charged for the bags they need.
A woman he’d been speaking to had her purchases in a new plastic bag hanging off the handlebar of her bicycle. “I usually remember,” she said, “but I always reuse.”
Abdul Joulani, owner of Jack’s Meats, is supportive, but also has questions. “I think it’s a good idea,” he said. “Plastic and paper are not healthy for the environment.”
Joulani’s not shy about promoting that idea: statistics about the environmental impact of disposable shopping bags, paper and plastic alike, are prominently displayed on his cash register. However, he has questions about the implementation of this new law. “It’s hard to cut [plastic bags] without an alternative,” he said. “I sell meat and that’s got to be in plastic. We can’t completely abandon it without having some options.”
That said, Joulani doesn’t back down from believing in the concept. “I think it’s a good start,” he said. One suggestion he had was a public information campaign of some kind, perhaps simply signs that say, “Please don’t ask for a bag.”
Kevin, a patron of Jack’s Meats who declined to give his last name, hadn’t heard about the new law yet. “I suppose in theory it’s a good idea,” he said, but as he thought about it, he became more conflicted. “On the one hand — really? How much effort is going towards that? I wonder about their thinking; is it about litter or a statement of social awareness? If alternatives are presented, maybe recycled paper, so you don’t have to chop down trees.”
Clement Lau, who has owned the grocery store Earthgoods down the street from Jack’s for four years, expects the new law will cost small business owners like him money, but believes it to be the “right thing to do. At the end of the day, we have to educate customers to bring their own bags.”
That’s what happens in Singapore, Lau said, and will happen in New Paltz where “people feel bad if they use a bag, but they also forget.” He said his store has both paper and plastic, “but plastic only in the medium size,” he explained. One reason he keeps them on hand: sometimes it rains.
Mother and daughter Amy and Trudy Poux, enjoying a meal at Mexicali Blue, loved the idea. Amy described it as “… very progressive and forward thinking” and hoped it would encourage other localities to do the same. For her part, Trudy said it would surely be good for the environment.
“I don’t care either way,” said Lisa Stewart, who owns the Awareness Shop on Main Street with her husband, Anton. “But they probably have more important things to do with their time.”
The store mostly uses paper, Stewart said, but she keeps a supply of the plastic bags on hand for rainy days.
New Paltz Town Board member Dan Torres has suggested exploring a similar ban in the town, but he’d like to see it passed by referendum. While Torres acknowledged on his Facebook page that he would have to find a new way to dispose of used kitty litter when the village’s ban goes into effect, reactions to his post were largely supportive of the idea.
New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce president Peter Ingellis wasn’t one of those bursting with enthusiasm for the ban. “The Village of New Paltz has passed the ordinance already and we will assist our membership and the village community as they make the necessary changes to be in compliance when the law changes,” he wrote in response to a question about the new law. Like Minervini, he’s skeptical such a law in such a small municipality will have any positive impacts.
Turning a bit philosophical, Minervini acknowledged that part of the problem is human nature, saying, “We all resist change until we get used to it.” In the end, she is resigned to being someone who doesn’t have a say in the law, but gets to obey it.
Paper vs. plastic
When it comes to environmental issues, the jury is still out on the question of paper vs. plastic. With no significant industrial hemp cultivation in the United States, paper bags start their existence as trees. The process of turning them into bags uses a tremendous amount of energy, making them a costlier choice both in money and in pollution near the paper plants. Plastic bags don’t take so much juice to create, but as a petroleum product, they have an impact on oil supply and pollution, possibly including the impacts of fracking, where that oil is obtained. Even when they’re thrown away, plastic bags are light enough that they often float off the top of landfills and remain in the environment, creating an eyesore and a hazard to a variety of life forms as they break down into tinier and tinier bits of plastic. Paper stays put, but poses its own landfill problems. For one, bulkier paper bags fill up the allotted space more quickly than plastic and are costlier to transport the some 300 miles to the landfill used by the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency. And even though they’re entirely organic, paper bags don’t break down in the slightest once they’re packed down at the garbage-disposal site. That’s why most environmentalists say that bringing reusable bags is the best option.