Long Island’s plastic bag ban was set to go into full effect on March 1, but as COVID-19 progresses, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) put a pause on the enforcement on March 19.
Without the pause, New York State Senate minority leader, John Flannagan. believes there will be additional cases of COVID-19, since the virus lives longer on plastic than on paper.
“New York’s ban on single-use plastic bags went into effect as planned on March 1,” Erica Ringwald, a spokeswoman for the DEC, said. “However, as per a new agreement by the parties, DEC will not pursue enforcement until after May 15, 2020.”
A study by the New England Journal of Medicine shows the coronavirus can live on plastic surfaces for up to 72 hours, thereby giving one-time use plastic bags priority over plastic reusable bags. Despite the benefit of using single-use plastic bags during the pandemic, some do not think it justifies lifting the ban.
“There is no need to lift the plastic bag ban,” Jane Fasullo, a member of the Sierra Club Long Island Group, said. “I can’t think of any reason for doing it. If there is a commercial, industrial, or domestic use that I am not aware of that could justify lifting the ban, I’d love to hear about it.”
The Sierra Club Long Island Group, a nonprofit organization, founded in 1892, is one of the nation’s longest-standing environmental organizations. With approximately 8,000 members across Nassau and Suffolk County, its purpose is to educate the public and influence public policy decisions.
James K. Dooley, an Adelphi University professor, as well as Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club, also believes the coronavirus is no excuse to roll back the plastic bag ban. The pandemic doesn’t suggest an “either-or” approach regarding exceptional environmental practices, he said.
“We must not lift the plastic bag ban during the present COVID-19 pandemic,” Dooley said. “There will always be an excuse to roll back environmental legislation. I used recyclable cloth bags before the ban, and continue to use them now. That is the right thing to do.”
Despite the criticism the rollback has faced from activists, plastic bag manufacturers are now considered an essential business during the pandemic, which gives them a chance to earn revenue by serving health care and foodservice customers.
However, one plastic bag manufacturer, Poly Pak Industries in Melville, N.Y., has been experiencing a decline in business. Ken Trottere, Vice President of the company, opposes the plastic bag ban as he believes the law overreaches and is arbitrary.
“These laws address only a tiny percentage of the solid waste issue,” Trottere said. “Passing such laws make people feel good, but only serve to distract them from the real problem — what to do with the millions of tons of garbage in the waste stream. There are workable solutions, but politicians and lobbying groups seem to prefer symbolic gestures over real solutions.”
The DEC says all businesses are complying with the rollback and has been in direct contact with individual retailers and chains, regarding reports of plastic bag use and limitations on the use of customers’ reusable bags. They have noted stores are struggling with demand for paper or reusable bags due to increased shopping. Retailers have been forced in the meantime to resort to distributing plastic bags. Some stores are also requiring customers to pack their own groceries, in an effort to limit potential exposure pathways for their staff.
Instead, the DEC will focus on education and outreach rather than enforcement, after courts determined such cases were not a priority during the ongoing pandemic, Ringwald said.
However, customers, such as Larae Sienna, believe conservation efforts during the pandemic are essential due to plastic’s status being one of the biggest pollutants of our society and marine environment.
As a member of the Long Island Activists Environmental Committee, Sienna supports the plastic bag ban and still utilizes reusable bags while grocery shopping. Sienna feels as if she is being looked down upon for sticking to her routine.
“It’s not as easy to bring in your own bags,” Sienna said. “The stores discourage it. You cannot put your own bags on the conveyor belt and there is an overall feeling of your bags being dirty. It’s uncomfortable.”
The bag free bill, sponsored by Nassau County Legislator Debra Mule, was created to reduce the reliance on single-use, disposable products that frequently pollute Long Island’s waterways. There are many cost-effective, sensible alternatives to single-use plastic bags which are especially destructive to our aquatic ecosystems and wildlife, Mule said.
To address the issue, Mule introduced Nassau County Legislation to implement a five-cent use fee as a means of promoting the use of more environmentally friendly, sustainable alternatives. She advocated for the use fee after learning of its success in Suffolk County, where 1.1 billion fewer plastic bags were used during the first year of enforcement.
However, Mule said the temporary lifting of the plastic-bag ban is reasonable, and the health of the public always comes first.
“Pausing enforcement of the plastic-bag ban is a prudent, temporary component of our regional response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “When the pause is lifted, I believe a robust public education campaign focused on the sanitary use of reusable alternatives to plastic and paper bags is necessary so that we can safely move forward with this initiative while always prioritizing public health.”
The science behind plastic decomposition shows that the chemicals plastic bags contain won’t break down until decades later. Daniela Benzaquen, a Binghamton graduate student, said plastic isn’t biodegradable. It relies instead on ultraviolet radiation from the sun to slowly break down its chemical bonds.
When the bags end up in the ocean, the plastic receives an abundance of light exposure, which may sound promising since it finally has a chance to degrade, but in fact, during decomposition, the plastic releases toxic chemicals harmful to aquatic organisms.
“Short term, [pausing plastic bag bans] wouldn’t bother me,” Benzaquen said. “But I can’t help but think that if this plastic bag ban was the status quo and had been a thing of our lives for many years, we wouldn’t have an issue getting through a global pandemic without plastic bags.”
Another environmentalist group, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, has not only supported plastic bag bans, but also championed them throughout Suffolk County, Nassau County, and New York State. The executive director, Adrienne Esposito, believes the ban is imperative and the industry is using the pandemic as a reason to scare the public into using single-use plastic bags.
“It’s critically unfortunate that the industry is using a public health crisis to scare the public into using throwaway plastic bags,” Esposito said. “The irony is that the plastic bags carry the virus for up to three days. So why would you switch from a reusable to a plastic bag? That’s nonsensical.”
Despite the arguments made against the temporary pause of enforcement on the plastic bag ban, some Long Island residents have voiced opposing opinions on the matter.
“The conservation efforts should take a backseat during this pandemic, we need all hands on deck to get control of this virus,” Theresa Panagis, a Verity Van Lines employee from Seaford, NY, said.