In a move to push shoppers off single-use bags, Tompkins County retailers soon must charge customers five cents for each paper bag they request for moving their purchases.
The county legislature unanimously agreed last Tuesday to adopt the five-cent paper bag fee to reduce single-use waste, which will take effect on March 1, 2020. The local law will be enacted alongside a New York State-wide bag waste reduction act that bans most plastic bags from retail sales and allows individual counties to opt into the paper bag fee.
The fee is intended to reduce paper bag waste, which piles up in landfills and in recycling streams, while also incentivizing consumers to shop with reusable bags. Under current industry standards, a durable bag — composed of cloth or another machine washable material — can endure at least 125 uses, according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
“We’ve heard about several communities that have tried adding a fee for paper bags, and it seems even five cents can encourage behavioral change,” Martha Robertson, chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, told The Sun in an email. “It seems the five-cent fee has been successful in getting people to think twice about the environment.”
However, some paper bags will be exempt from this fee, such as those used to package bulk food and medicine. The paper bag tax will also not apply to SNAP and WIC recipients.
In addition to hoping to change consumer habits, revenues from the fee will be directed toward environmental purposes. The state Environmental Protection Fund, which finances projects such as restoring historic sites and controlling invasive species, will receive 60% of the revenues. The remaining 40% will be returned to Tompkins County to purchase and distribute reusable bags to residents, prioritizing fixed and low-income communities.
The county’s decision to opt into the paper bag fee comes after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) first proposed a bill in 2018 that prohibits plastic bags from retail establishments. In March, the now-approved bill makes New York one of the first to implement a statewide plastic bag ban.
“The blight of plastic bags takes a devastating toll on our streets, our water and our natural resources, and we need to take action to protect our environment,” Cuomo said in an April 2018 statement.
Some local stores have already rolled out policies to curb single-use waste, ahead and independent of the March plastic bag ban and county paper bag fee.
Among these early actors, The Cornell Store is currently phasing out plastic bags, while Wegmans already banned them at its Ithaca and Corning stores in July, in addition to charging five cents for each paper bag use.