State examining solutions to growing plastic bag concerns

Local officials are weighing in over a state task force established earlier in the year to examine possible solutions to the growing concern over the use of plastic bags.

New York City was preparing to implement a 5-cent tax on plastic bags in March, but the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo stepped in to block the city’s law. However, it came with the state’s commitment to formulate a task force to examine the issue not only in New York City, but also throughout the state.

One of the main concerns surrounding plastic bags is the fact they aren’t biodegradable. As plastic pollution researcher and State University of New York at Fredonia professor Sherri Mason noted, bags break down into small pieces and enter the environment, where they can absorb chemicals and be injected into living organisms like fish.

“One single plastic bag can form billions of little pieces of plastic that can make their way into organisms,” Mason told the OBSERVER. “This is an issue that’s kind of like microbeads. This is something we can tackle.”

The task force formulated by Cuomo consists of members of government, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Food Industry Alliance, League of Conservation Voters and the New York State Association of Counties.

As Cuomo noted in March, the task force is working to develop a uniform and equitable state plan to address New York’s plastic bag problem. The goal for the task force is to develop a report and bring a proposal to the state Legislature to address the detrimental impacts.

“The costly and negative impact of plastic bags on New York’s natural resources is a statewide issue that demands a statewide solution,” Cuomo said in March.

Recently, the Counties Association held a forum to gather feedback from local municipalities across the state regarding plastic bag management issues. Stephen Acquario, NYSAC executive director and task force member, said many counties and municipalities across the U.S. have implemented bans and fees for lightweight plastic bags. And many more are considering them.

“NYSAC is taking a range of questions and collecting feedback on a number of different fronts,” he said.

At the local level, Mason has gone before local leaders in Fredonia and Dunkirk to discuss why she thought it was necessary to implement a plastic bag fee. She believed the money collected could be used for recycle bins and beach cleanups. The idea never gained any traction before either municipality.

“I liked the idea of a fee that stayed local and could be used on the local level,” she said.

Plastic bags used by stores today are thin and require less energy to create than other alternative bags like paper or cloth. Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown, said every option has its benefits and tradeoffs.

“I trust that the task force will evaluate all advantages and disadvantages of plastic bags compared to the most likely alternatives,” he said. “The technology exists that many people can recycle their plastic bags and I certainly encourage that.”

It’s unknown at this point when the task force will finalize their report and what their proposal will entail.

State Sen. Cathy Young, R-Olean, said everyone wants a clean environment. However, she said people are already being “taxed to death.”

“I think recycling is the answer for now and innovations are needed down the road,” she said. “So many innovations are out there to make biodegradable plastics. But we shouldn’t raise taxes.”

Mason said she supports the task force despite frustration over how the state stepped in and blocked New York City’s bill.

“It’s going along the lines of what they had to do in California in order to implement it on a statewide level,” she said. “But imposing just a fee, like Ireland and Washington, D.C., did, has seen dramatic decreases in the usage and (plastics bags’) pervasiveness in the environment.”

The governor’s office states that New York state residents use 23 billion plastic bags each year.


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