New York retailers have begun giving up single-use plastic bags as the state prepares for the March 1 implementation of a ban aimed at reducing pollution, but many of those who support a move away from plastic are worried the new law doesn't go far enough.
The law bars many types of businesses from using the thin plastic bags that have been clogging up landfills, getting tangled in trees and accumulating in lakes and seas. Single-use paper bags will still be allowed, but counties have the option of imposing a 5 cent fee.
As the deadline to drop plastic bags nears, though, not all environmentalists are ready to celebrate.
Some worry the state's new regulations include a loophole that could allow stores to skirt the ban by handing out plastic bags thick enough to be considered suitable for multiple uses.
"It is a giant loophole which they should close in the future," said Judith Enck, a former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who now leads the environmental advocacy group Beyond Plastics. “It's not good for the environment if you go from thinner plastic bags to thicker plastic bags.”
The regulations, which have yet to be finalized, allow stores to hand out plastic bags if they are washable, can be used at least 125 times, carry 22 pounds over at least 175 feet, and have an attached strap that doesn't stretch with normal use. Regulators also proposed that any reusable plastic bags be at least one-hundredth of an inch thick. That's thicker than required in California, which also limits the use of single-use plastic bags.
A spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the ban last year, dismissed concerns about the regulation being too flexible.
"These groups should stop promoting baseless conspiracy theories and focus their efforts on helping New Yorkers transition to re-usable bags,” spokesman Jason Conwall said.
Shoppers are encouraged to start using sturdy reusable bags, such as those made of canvas or polyester, said Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state's Department of Environmental Conservation. His agency says the plastic industry probably lacks the machinery to produce thicker plastic bags that meet New York's proposed standard and still be cost effective.
“There's always a period of transition where there's resistance or uncertainty,” Seggos told The Associated Press.
Some environmentalists also worry that the proposed rules allow state regulators to make exemptions for thin plastic bags “for which there is no reasonable or practicable alternative.”
"This could result in widespread efforts to skirt the law's prohibition on plastic carryout bags," 19 Assembly Democrats said in a recent letter to Seggos.
Seggos said regulators realized last fall that the state needed to make some exceptions, such as allowing pet stores to sell gold fish in plastic bags or allowing art stores to sell large sheets of paper protected by bigger plastic bags.
The agency expects to finalize its regulations for the ban soon, and Seggos said there won't be major changes.
Several major chains, including the grocer Wegmans, have already made the switch away from plastic.
Convenience store owners want to be exempt them from the ban, which already excludes bags used for restaurant takeout food, plastic bags used to wrap meat, and bags used for prepared food.
Jim Calvin, president of the state Association of Convenience Stores, said owners of small convenience stores are also feeling "anxiety" about having enough paper bags to go around by March 1.
Matthew Hamory, a managing director in the retail practice at AlixPartners LLP, said it's unclear how exactly the ban will impact the market for paper bags, though it is clear that “New York will be adding an enormous amount of retail outlets who are using paper bags.”
Plastic bag manufacturers are also calling for New York to delay or weaken its ban because of concerns over the supply of multiuse bags.
"Retailers who typically buy their bags months in advance are staring down the barrel of implementation that they just cannot comply with," said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance.
Seggos said his agency is aware of concerns about paper bag shortages and has purchased over a quarter million reusable bags the state will give out to food pantries and shelters.
“The industry has know this has been coming for ten months,” he said.