When New York banned single-use plastic bags in 2020, environmental activists hailed the new law and vowed to push for more eco-friendly legislation.
But more than three years later, they say a lack of robust enforcement has allowed scores of stores, including several major national chains, to continue handing out plastic bags to customers.
“This bill is low-hanging fruit,” said Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But if we can’t effectively enforce this law, then it’s a cloudy outlook for the other steps that are needed to wean our state away from reliance on fossil fuels.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the state agency assigned with implementing the ban, says it is cracking down on bad actors.
Since April 4, 2021, DEC conducted 389 inspections and issued 117 warning notices to locations throughout New York State for “plastic carryout bag distribution and film plastic collection bin violations,” according to agency spokesperson Jeff Wernick.
The DEC has also sent 26 so-called Notices of Violation and Orders on Consent, he added. The fines — ranging from $250 to $500 per violation — are issued only after written cautions go unheeded, according to DEC. All told, the DEC has issued more than $75,000 in fines since the law was enacted, Wernick said.
Most of the recent financial penalties — 17 since 2021 — have gone to corporate, chain and franchise-type stories that operate multiple locations, DEC said.
Family Dollar Stores of New York got hit with the steepest fine of $26,650 for ignoring the plastic ban at three locations in New York City, according to DEC.
Kristin Tetreault, a spokesperson for the discount chain with thousands of locations throughout the country, did not respond to a text seeking comment.
The Family Dollar Store fines came after New York Focus in October 2022 highlighted how the national chain was blatantly ignoring the law.
On Monday, customers at a Dollar Tree store on McDonald Ave. in Brooklyn were given a choice to either carry their own items or pay five cents for a brown bag or $1.36 for a reusable bag.
Most of the customers seemed nonplussed by the situation, with some bringing their own bags and others opting to buy from the store.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” said Roger Perez, who bought a reusable bag.
Friends Nicole Anderson and Sharifa Alleyne said they try to bring their own bags, or just pay the fee.
But they are annoyed with the brown bags that don’t have any handles.
“Recently I went to pick up an order from DSW,” Anderson recalled as she walked into the Dollar Tree store. “That was kind of annoying. It’s really just a matter of remembering to bring your own bag. The paper bags can be difficult to hold.”
But environmental activists say that DEC is not doing nearly enough.
“These skimpy numbers are very disappointing,” said Judith Enck, president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics and former regional administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Volunteers for Beyond Plastics have documented scores of stores violating the ban by simply standing and watching customers exit businesses with them. They’ve sent detailed lists to DEC, she added, but little has been done so far.
“Stores that have violated the law from the beginning continue to violate the law,” Enck said, urging Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York State Attorney General Letitia James to “enforce the law.”
Francisco Marte, a spokesperson for the Bodega and Small Business Association, has long argued the ban unfairly burdens store owners.
The ban was initially set to go into effect on March 1, 2020 — the day the first coronavirus case in the city was reported. But the full implementation was stalled until the next April after bag manufacturer Poly-Pak Industries filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the new rules.
“For some reason they are not enforcing the law in hundreds of stores,” said Anne Bassen of Beyond Plastics. “We don’t really know why.”