LEAGUE OF WOMAN VOTERS SAYS:
Editor’s Note: This position paper was prepared by Liane Hirabayashi and Julie Sorensen, co-presidents, League of Women Voters of the Cooperstown Area and Steve Londner, Chair, Steering Committee, League of Women Voters of the Oneonta Area.
“No, I brought my own bag,” many shoppers are telling store clerks when asked “Do you need a bag?” And more shoppers will be giving the same reply starting in March 2020 when the New York State Bag Waste Reduction Act goes into effect. This new law bans — with some exceptions— the use of plastic bags by merchants and others to hold purchases.
The League of Women Voters of the Cooperstown Area and the League of Women Voters of the Oneonta Area believe this ban on plastic bags is an important step toward the goal of reducing solid waste and environmental pollution. We are, however, disappointed that paper bags were not included in the ban because when it comes to waste reduction, paper bags have as many problems as plastic bags do.
In general, the public does not perceive paper bags as being as bad for the environment as plastic bags, but that is not the case. As Eric Goldstein of the National Resource Defense Fund in New York noted, “The transportation of paper products from forests to pulping mills to retail outlets consumes large amounts of fossil fuel and emits ground level air contaminants. And the paper-making process itself is energy intensive and a major source of water pollution.”
Paper bags are costlier to transport at the beginning of their lifecycle, but the cost incurred at the end of the paper bag’s lifecycle should concern us as well.
Using paper bags does not decrease the amount of waste we generate. Paper bags that are not composted may leave our homes as recyclable material, but if the bags are contaminated or are simply not recycled, they end up in the landfill. In either case—being sent to the recycling processor or to the landfill—there is a short-term cost to transporting the bags to their final destination, a cost that is paid by the taxpayers of this county. As for the long term, every single paper bag that is not recycled is taken to the landfill, and each bag placed in that landfill brings us closer the day when the landfill will reach capacity and be closed.
Even as they were writing the law, New York State legislators seemed to recognize these problems associated with paper bags and agreed to a solution of sorts: a provision to impose a 5¢ fee on paper bags. This fee would reduce waste by encouraging people to use their own reusable bags when shopping and not to merely replace plastic bags with paper bags. The 5¢ bag fee would not be imposed on the most vulnerable in our community and a portion (2¢) of the funds collected would be used to buy and distribute reusable bags among this population. The remainder of the fee would support statewide environmental projects.
Unfortunately, in designing this solution the legislators did not require statewide compliance with the 5¢ fee. It is up to each county and municipality to decide whether or not to charge this fee—a fee that will discourage people from replacing plastic bags with paper and encourage them to use durable reusable bags.
Beginning in the 1970s, before there were deposits on bottles or systems in place for recycling cans, plastics, and paper, the Leagues in our county began their efforts to support policies that promoted the reuse and recycling of solid and hazardous wastes. More important, we have supported all efforts to promote policies that reduce the generation of waste.
Otsego County as well has recognized the importance of waste reduction in its 2018 Solid Waste Management Plan, and the residents of the county clearly support these waste reduction goals. Many citizens participate in the successful Hazardous Waste Days and Earth Day Collections held in the county. Since the installation of the densifier at the ARC Otsego Re-use Center approximately 2,000 pounds of polystyrene has been collected. Clearly, people here support promoting a cleaner environment.
No doubt, when the ban goes into effect, many of us will forget our reusable bags, and pay the fee. Over time, however, that little nudge of paying the 5¢ fee will change our habits, and carrying reusable bags into stores and markets will become second nature, just as recycling cans, bottles, and paper has.
The League believes that replacing plastic bags with paper bags is not a solution to waste reduction. The Board of Representatives should step up and rectify the situation by implementing the 5¢ paper bag fee in Otsego County. Imposing the fee will be good for our environment and will support Otsego County’s overall waste reduction goals.