On any given day walking through New York City, plastic bags are everywhere you turn. They’re at your corner bodega where you order your sausage, egg, and cheese on a roll; they hold the last-minute necessities you picked up on the way home for dinner; they litter our streets, our subway stations, and our parks. Plastic bags are ubiquitous, but beginning in March, they’ll be banned not just in the city but across the state.
According to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), New York is responsible for using an average of 23 billion plastic bags in a year. It’s a huge contribution to the plastic pollution crisis that’s so expansive, it could mark the start of a new geologic era. And in many cases, that’s a lot of single-use plastics that could reasonably be replaced with more sustainable alternatives.
But before heading out with the expectation that plastic bags will magically vanish from New York State entirely beginning March 1 (they won’t), there are some key exemptions you should know about beforehand—namely, how the ban will impact individual shoppers.
Under the Bag Waste Reduction Law, New York shoppers will be expected to bring their own bags. That includes simply reusing a plastic bag you’ve come home with before—something you can stick in a pocket or purse if you know you’ll be out and about—as well as cloth and paper bags. Backpacks and larger bags also typically allow some extra space for a lunch or some last-minute shopping and are great no-hassle alternatives you won’t have to remember to bring along with you whenever you leave the house.
Don’t have a reusable bag at your disposal? The New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) is holding a bunch of events in all five boroughs to distribute free reusable bags until the end of March.
With that said, there’ll still be some plastic bag exemptions to on-the-go and grocery shopping. That includes plastics used to wrap meat, seafood, poultry and some other raw or prepared foods, as well as bags from pharmacies to carry prescription drugs. You’ll also still be able to use plastic bag for items from bulk bins, like pasta, nuts, fruit, candy, and small hardware items like nuts and bolts (pro tip: You can also bring reusable bags for those, too). Plastic won’t entirely disappear from your shopping experience just yet, but you will see a lot less of it.
It’s important to remember that bag bans—while an important step for reducing waste and reducing single-use plastics—do not affect all communities in the same way. In addition to the plastic bag ban, counties and cities will be permitted to charge residents a five-cent fee per paper carryout bag for customers who don’t bring their own. Those fees are the type of policy that can disproportionately burden low-income and communities of color.
Lawmakers took that under consideration when they put together New York’s plastic bag ban, and the fee for carryout bags will be waived for some shoppers. Both SNAP and WIC program recipients will be exempt from the paper bag fee, whether or not either is used to pay for all or part of their purchase.
As with food items that are packaged to-order at deli counters and bulk stations in grocery stores, takeout will also get a pass. The DEC states that bags “provided by a restaurant, tavern or similar food service establishment, as defined in the New York state sanitary code, to carry out or deliver prepared food” will till be allowed. Presumably, this means that your Postmates and Seamless orders will still come delivered in plastic bags. We’ve reached out to the DEC for more information on that front and will update this post if we hear back.
There are a few other places in New York you’ll still see plastic bags turn up. Newspapers—the ones delivered by subscription—will still come wrapped in plastic. Dry cleaning and laundry will also be exempt from the plastic bag ban. Trash bags, as well as food and freezer bags, are also still permitted for sale. And the DEC still leaves some wiggle room for single-use plastic bags “for which there is no reasonable or practical alternative for storing, containing or transporting items,” though those exemptions are at its discretion. Oh, and live fish and insects will still be permitted to be sold in those tiny plastic bags, somewhat unfortunately for them.
But by and large, New York residents will be expected to bring their own bags in the majority of cases. So don’t sleep on snagging one of those free DSNY totes!