Ulster County moving toward ban of plastic shopping bags

(Photo by Nicole Terpening)

They’re everywhere — in our grocery stores, lining our trashcans and landfills, hanging in trees, floating in our river, trapped in and around the throats of sea animals and, as recently reported on the Internet, at the deepest recesses of the ocean.

They’re plastic shopping bags. Here in Ulster County, lawmakers are trying to drastically reduce local use of the bags with a proposed local law.

On May 15, legislators voted to set a public hearing on the “Bring Your Own Bag Act” for June. Should it pass into law, the use of these bags by many retail outlets could be banned outright by this time next year. Less harmful but still ecologically not-optimal paper bags would be provided at the cost of five cents each.

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“It’s something we’ve been talking about at the legislative level over the course of at least three years. The history of it goes back to 2007,” said Legislator Tracey Bartels of Gardiner/Shawangunk. “It’s been a collaborative process of weighing what is good for the environment and what is good for the county… we asked about changing habits — in other communities [that have enacted similar legislation] it’s documented that people start bringing their own bags.”

Australia, China, South Africa, Rwanda and Bangladesh are some of over 40 countries to “ban the bag”; within the United States, over 200 counties and municipalities have done the same, including the state of Hawaii. As of now, the only community within Ulster County to ban plastic bags is the village of New Paltz; according to Bartels, Nassau and Westchester county are “just behind us.” Suffolk County currently imposes an additional fee on plastic and paper products.

Rather than just imposing higher prices on plastic bags as a deterrent, Bartels said banning them outright has been shown to be more effective in other communities. She cited a 2016 initiative in Chicago that upped the price of plastic bags, which according to a study commissioned by the city from New York University researchers and the University of Chicago Energy and Environment, lab decreased the usage of plastic bags by over 40 percent.

Business owners will be given ample time between the passing of the local law and the implementation date, eyed for Earth Day 2019, to phase out their currently stocked plastic bags. Fines for violating the law would range from a $100 fee on the first offense to a $500 fee on the third and subsequent offense.

“I think that conservatives should be for it — it’s conservation, it’s part of the word,” said District 18 Legislator Joe Maloney, who serves on the legislature’s Environment and Energy Committee. “I think it’ll pass very easily — I’m a yes vote. I’ve been working with Tracey Bartels and Kathy Nolan since January when we all got elected. … I’m glad Ulster County is ahead of the curve.”

Although it wasn’t initially written this way, the legislature’s Environment and Energy Committee ultimately decided to leave take-out food restaurants, outdoor grocery stores, convenience stores and food marts out of the law. This exemption may be removed during the deliberation process; also in question is whether to impose regulations on “big box” stores and then smaller one, or to impose the ban all at once.

“I love the fact that it’s called ‘bring your own bag’ rather than ‘plastic bag ban,’” said Legislator Manna Jo Greene of Rosendale. “Rather than being portrayed as a negative thing, we’re teaching people how to retrain themselves.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled prospective state-wide legislation that would also ban plastic bags on May 7 but its fate in the state legislature is unclear.

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