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Plastic Bag Ban Violators Getting Away with Breaking Law as Enforcers Check Out

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Plastic bags hang out with a reusable bag in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, July 22, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

State regulators charged with overseeing the ban on single-use plastic shopping bags are overwhelmed by complaints, with more than 300 reported violators yet to be checked on, data obtained by THE CITY shows. 

The Department of Environmental Conservation, the state agency that’s supposed to enforce the new regulation, has received 500 email complaints from concerned New Yorkers since the law took effect last October, the department said. 

State investigators have conducted just 195 store visits, issuing 69 warning notices, all to spots in New York City and Long Island, according to the DEC. Only one shop in the seven counties has been hit with a cash-penalty violation for continued disregard of the new law since May 5, the records show. 

Environmental activists called on the Cuomo administration to do more.

“DEC just needs to step it up,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator, who supported the plastic bag ban. 

Another activist was so frustrated by the lack of enforcement that he mailed the DEC four single-use plastic bags about two weeks ago. 

“I told them that this non-enforcement is not fair to those stores that are complying with the ban,” said the activist, David Rosenfeld, 57, from Midwood, Brooklyn. 

Many stores throughout the city act like they’re daring the DEC inspectors to take more aggressive action, said Enck. 

“Most of these stores know what the law is,” she said. “But they’re willing to take a chance and just keep buying cheap plastic bags. Maybe they’ll pay the modest fine as the cost of doing business.”

Merchants Assail ‘Asinine’ Law

Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for the Bodega and Small Business Association, called the plastic ban law in New York State “asinine.” 

“It didn’t take into consideration the lack of supply of paper bags and their costs and a pandemic that’s been devastating particularly on local bodegas that have been fighting the pandemic and supporting communities that were disproportionately impacted by the virus,” he said. 

In May, THE CITY reported that the DEC had issued zero fines up until that point, despite scores of complaints. 

Hours after the story was published, the DEC announced that it had issued 12 violation notices, with nine going to small businesses and three to corporate groups, including Gristedes. 

Plastic bags overflow from a Brooklyn garbage bin more than a year after they were banned, July 22, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Since that time, the DEC has issued just one added violation, according to the department, which said it is also preparing enforcement for several other violators. 

“DEC’s Divisions of Law Enforcement and Materials Management continue to actively investigate complaints across the state and overall have seen progress toward compliance with the Bag Waste Reduction Law, including two large chains, Gristedes and D’Agostino,” said Maureen Wren, a DEC spokesperson. 

Many stores follow the law after they are initially contacted by DEC about a possible violation, she said. Fines range from $250 to $500. 

The department encourages the public to submit potential violations for investigation, she added. She declined to detail how many state inspectors that the department has to deploy. 

One Sheepshead Bay resident has reported more than 100 spots via email with no response aside from an initial acknowledgement.

“I just care about the environment,” said Eric, who didn’t want his last name used to avoid any issues with store owners. “Our world is dying and everyone does their part trying to save it.” 

He visits Brooklyn’s Sunset Park about once a month, and walks up and down the bustling commercial strip along Eighth Avenue, between 45th and 65th streets, to see whether merchants are following the law. 

“It’s so overwhelming to see every store giving out plastic bags,” he said, noting just about five out of the 200 stores are complying, by his count. 

Eric and other supporters of the new rule note that single-use plastic bags create a massive amount of waste, with about half of them ending up as street litter. That represents countless bags on streets, in trees and clogging waterways, they point out.

‘The Jury’s Out’

As of May, the state had pulled in about $3.4 million in tax revenue tied to the new regulations, according to the DEC. The tax, technically a five-cent fee, is only collected on paper carry-out bags, not the banned plastic carry-out bags nor the sturdier reusable bags that some stores sell.

Other areas that have implemented similar bans have experienced varying results. 

In Chicago, store owners began to offer paper bags and thicker plastic bags that customers ended up using as disposable bags. That actually led to a higher use of overall plastic. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio hands out reusable bags in Union Square a day before the plastic bag ban was slated to go into effect, Feb. 28, 2020.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

In 2010, Washington, D.C., lawmakers placed a five-cent fee on all disposable bags. 

“Consumers responded a lot,” said Tatiana Homonoff, a professor at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. 

The regulation cut the amount of disposable bags that people use in half, according to a research paper she wrote. 

Her study noted that about 80% of people were using disposable bags, either paper or plastic, before the fee went into effect. Now, about 40% of the shoppers spot-checked use plastic rather than a reusable bag, the review found. 

New York’s City Council took the D.C. approach, approving a five-cent fee on plastic in 2016, only to be overridden by the state in 2017.

Now, New York store owners say the state’s plastic bag ban did little to take into account that paper bags cost up to four times more than plastic. Those bags also require more energy to produce than a plastic bag and cost more to transport because they are heavier. 

“They have their own sort of environmental consequences as well,” said Homonoff. “It’s really just about which do you think is better for the environment, paper or plastic? And I think the jury’s sort of out on that.”

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