On Sunday, March 1, New York joins California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Vermont and a handful of cities and towns including Albuquerque and Chicago to ban single-use plastic bags. That’s good for the planet, but it comes with three questions for consumers:
What’s a single use plastic bag?
What can I use instead?
Is it safe?
First, a single-use bag is just what it sounds like: A bag used once and then discarded. The list includes everything from your zip-lock sandwich bag to the plastic covering over your dry cleaning. But the real target of the new regulations is the supermarket shopping bag, so when the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation issued final rules last week, it came with a long list of exemptions ranging from bags for “bulk items” (i.e. fruits and veggies) to take-out food from restaurants and delis. You can see the entire not-on-our-radar list online at http://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/117781.html
What to use instead? The rules say paper bags for groceries are A-okay. They even allow cities to charge you 5 cents per bag which New York will do except for folks shopping with SNAP (food stamps) or WIC (the food supplement program for women and infants).
But surprise! So far paper manufacturers haven’t been able to produce enough paper bags to take up the slack, leaving key retailers such as Gristedes and D’Agostino complaining that they haven’t got what they need. Not to worry: You’re allowed to bring along any single-use plastic bags you socked away before the ban.
Safety and Shopping
Or you can simply switch to a reuseable carry-all. How safe that is depends on how careful you are. As every savvy shopper knows, raw meat, fish and poultry may be contaminated with less-than-pleasant microbes such as Salmonella bacteria inactivated when the food is thoroughly cooked. But the (permissible) plastic packaging for these foods often leaks and may contaminate other foods, your refrigerator, your hands, your kitchen counter, and that reuseable bag in which you haul them home.
To reduce the risk of food-borne disease, DEC says put these packages into one of the small plastic bags which you will still find hanging next to the refrigerated case, keep that bag separate from other stuff in your shopping cart, use a separate carry-all to carry it home, wash and dry that reuseable bag, and never, ever use it for anything else.
And don’t panic.
Transition can be challenging, and with this one, you can practically guarantee there will be fine-tuning. Last week, a broad coalition of bodega owners, supermarket works, plastic and paper bag manufacturers asked to postpone the ban. So far, the answer has been a resounding “no,” but tomorrow is another day.
Meanwhile, as the great French playwright and actor Jean-Baptiste Poquelin Moliere told us just about 400 years ago, “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”