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‘People Will Wonder Why We Didn’t Do This Sooner’: New York Becomes Second State to Ban Plastic Bags

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A man holds a plastic shopping bag in New York's Central Park. Kena Betancur / VIEWpress / Corbis via Getty Images

New York State lawmakers agreed to a ban on single-use plastic bags Sunday, making the Empire State the second in the nation to do so.

The decision was part of a $175.5 billion budget agreement that included other progressive measures including the elimination of cash bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent crimes, three-hours-off on election day for voting and the nation's first-ever congestion pricing program in the busiest part of Manhattan. The budget was expected to be passed in a series of bills during a session Sunday that could carry into Monday, the Associated Press reported.

"I am proud to announce that together, we got it done," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said of the budget, according to the Associated Press.


The plastic bag ban will go into effect March 1, 2020. Counties and cities will have the option to charge customers five cents for paper bags. Two cents would then go to a fund to help low-income customers buy reusable bags and three cents would go to the state's Environmental Protection Fund.

In passing the ban, New York follows California, which was the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags in 2016. In Hawaii, they are also effectively banned since every county in the state prohibits them.

"I think we'll look back in a few years and people will wonder why we didn't do this sooner," Democratic Nassau County State Senator Todd Kaminsky, who sponsored the bill and chairs the environmental conservation committee, told The New York Times.

The ban comes after several failed attempts to manage plastic bags in New York. In 2017, Cuomo signed a bill that blocked a New York City plan to charge five cents for plastic bags. Last year, a similar, state-wide ban was blocked by Republicans in the state Senate. But Democrats picked up eight Senate seats during the 2018 midterm elections, gaining a majority and making the ban possible.

"I'm looking forward to it. I've been waiting for it for a long time. I'm tired of having to recycle them," Midtown resident Louise Sharakan told CBS2 of the upcoming ban.

However, not all New Yorkers are pleased, as this interview shows:

"I hate it. I use them all the time, believe it or not, in my apartment. I don't have a space for garbage. I hang them by the door and I use them for garbage," said Midtown resident Glen Wiehl.

"So what are you going to do?" CBS2's Marcia Kramer asked.

"I'm stocking up now," he said.

The most controversial part of the ban has proved to be the optional paper bag fee. Some environmentalists think it should not be optional, since it could result in shoppers simply using paper bags instead of purchasing reusable bags.

"New York had a chance to show real leadership and came up short," Environmental Advocates of New York Executive Director Peter Iwanowicz told The New York Times.

Business groups, who were critical of the ban in general, thought some of the fee should have been directed back to the stores to help with implementation costs.

"The failure to give even a portion of the 5-cent fee back to the stores, makes this an untenable mandate for many of our members who operate within finite profit margins," Food Industry Alliance of New York State President Mike Durant told The New York Times. "We are disappointed that the Legislature did not consider this alternative and failed to hear the concerns of the business community."

The ban includes exceptions for takeout, dry cleaning, bulk and deli items, newspapers and bags like garbage bags bought in bulk.

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Jessica Kourkounis / Stringer

The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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