Ever since I got my driver’s license at age 16—and had the means to transport myself around—I’ve volunteered some of my time picking up trash like cans and plastic bags off of the side of the road or along my favorite hiking spots. That said, I can’t say that I’ve never used plastic bags, especially for a quick stop at the convenience store or when I just forget my beloved, reusable Aldi bags at home (those things are practically bottomless). When I do get plastic bags, it’s hard to get rid of them—at least in a sanitary way.
To that point, on January 15, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo released his proposed 2019 budget, which included a ban on single-use plastic bags in addition to an expansion in the state’s five-cent, recyclable bottle deposit. Efforts to regulate the use of plastic bags have been discussed for years in New York State (Governor Cuomo first proposed a ban last April), and statewide plastic bag bans have already taken effect in Hawaii and California.
Though they’re much cheaper to produce than paper bags, the vast majority of plastic bags aren’t biodegradable, either ending up as litter or in landfills. And like plastic straws, which came under intense (and sudden) public scrutiny last year, plastic bags have a big environmental impact, contributing to the growing amount of plastics in our oceans and global biomes. The New York City Department of Sanitation alone spends around $12.5 million a year on the handling and disposal of plastic bags. But what would a plastic bag ban look like for shoppers here in Saratoga, who depend on these bags to, well, schlep handfuls of goodies and necessities from local businesses to their homes?
For some stores, such as Healthy Living Market at the Wilton Mall, a plastic bag ban wouldn’t mean much of a change at all. The family-owned, Vermont-based grocery store (with a home office in South Burlington, VT) specializes in healthy, locally- and consciously-sourced foods. The Wilton store phased out its plastic bags at checkout around three years ago. “People that shop here generally really care about their carbon footprint, and they’re concerned about the environment as a whole,” says Duane Hendershot, General Manager of the Wilton store. “So I think that the shoppers we have here will be pretty receptive to a [statewide plastic bag] ban.”
In addition to eliminating its plastic bags at checkout, Healthy Living tries to minimize its reliance on plastic bags in other departments, such as meat or produce. All of Healthy Living’s disposable flatware, plates and to-go containers are made from plant fiber and are entirely compostable, and the majority of behind-the-counter containers are plant-based as well. The store also incentivizes its customers to bring in reusable bags by offering a ten-cent discount for every bag. “People need to get into the habit of using reusable bags,” says Hendershot. “It’s really important for the environment, not just from the standpoint of plastic bags but reusing everything and really trying to minimize what we’re putting in a landfill.” However, as Hendershot points out, Healthy Living caters to a customer base that’s already searching for a “greener” shopping experience (and willing to pay a higher price for it).
While Healthy Living has just the two locations, how might a statewide plastic bag ban affect Stewart’s Shops, which operates 335 stores throughout New York and Vermont? “The plastic bag ban would definitely impact Stewart’s Shops,” says Erica Komoroske, a spokesperson for the company. “Our walking customers definitely rely on the convenience of our plastic bags, so for them, especially, it would be a huge detriment.” Like Healthy Living, Stewart’s Shops has already gone to great lengths to try to reduce its plastic and carbon footprint. Komoroske points out that the emblematic Stewart’s white plastic bag is actually thicker than your average plastic bag and is intended to be reused multiple times. Furthermore, all of the bags at Stewart’s are recyclable, and their stores do sell a reusable, tote-style bag for just $0.99 (all shops also offer optional paper bags and a discounted price on coffee for reusable mugs). “We always make a conscious effort to protect the environment and to recycle and reuse whenever possible,” says Komoroske.
However, for Stewart’s to transition over to an entirely plastic-free environment would be costly and likely translate to some higher prices for customers. “If costs do increase, depending on how large the cost is, yes, it could affect the customer,” says Komoroske. Stewart’s Shops wouldn’t be alone in this regard. Many other stores from mom-and-pop shops to mega shopping centers and fast-food chains will be forced to make the same pricing considerations should a statewide plastic bag ban go into effect.
It’s worth noting that Cuomo’s budget didn’t specifically define what qualified a “single-use plastic bag.” The bill that the governor introduced last April had a number of exemptions, including takeout bags used by restaurants and newspaper bags, among others. Until more details are available, it’s not clear how big of an impact the governor’s proposed plastic bag ban would have on the wallets of consumers and businesses. Speaking for this reporter, ban or no ban, I’m going to continue my community service of garbage collecting. And who knows, very soon I might be seeing (and picking up) fewer plastic bags.