Paper bags will cost retailers 7 times more to order than plastic bags
As New York’s single-use plastic bag ban takes effect in grocery stores across the state, smaller convenience and retail locations are gearing up for a huge hit to their bottom lines — and a habit shift for customers.
The ban takes effect March 1 after being signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year.
The goal is to reduce plastics pollution in New York; think tattered plastic bags in trees or clogging street drains.
On the other hand, experts say plastic bags produce less greenhouse gases over their lifetime than paper bags, making them a better option from a global warming standpoint.
By next month, all grocery and retail establishments required to pay sales tax must be fully switched over to paper bags and/or reusable bags. Then it's up to the counties or the stores to decide whether to charge 5 cents for each paper bag.
That includes stores like Target and Kohl’s, and your local corner shop.
At least eight other states have also banned plastic bags, including California, Oregon, Delaware and New Jersey. Dutchess, Suffolk and Ulster counties have already implemented bans passed by their lawmakers in the last two years.
On average, paper bags will cost stores about seven times more to order in bulk than plastic bags, said Jim Calvin, president of the state Association of Convenience Stores.
There are about 8,500 convenience stores in New York, including gas stations, bodegas and rest stop stores.
Eating the costs of paper bags in NY
Stores said they expect the law will cut into their profits.
“It does cost us a lot, but it’s not a choice we can make,” said Javar Almugannahi, of Gates, who owns Genesee One Stop Mart in Rochester. He owns three convenience stores in Rochester neighborhoods.
Even though his overhead costs will see a hike from ordering paper bags, Almugannahi doesn’t plan to charge customers for them, believing it’s a better business decision to give them away at no charge.
Wegmans has already switched to paper bags and charges customers 5 cents for them; Price Chopper has indicated it will do the same.
“If (customers) want a paper bag, I can’t charge them for that,” said Almugannahi. “People will just go to a different store.”
He does plan to sell reusable bags in his stores once the ban takes effect.
So does Dollar Tree, Family Dollar and Dollar General, all of which sell both groceries and retail items in city, suburban and rural areas.
The stores will be offering paper bags at no charge, unless mandated by a municipality.
“We encourage our customers to select ecofriendly options,” like reusable bags, said Dollar Tree/Family Dollar spokesperson Kayleigh Painter.
Transitioning customers to paper bags
When the ban was being discussed in the state Legislature last year, Calvin and his colleagues were opposed to it. They instead pushed for a charge for both paper and plastic bags.
"We think that would have sharply reduced plastic bag consumption without eliminating the convenience of a plastic bag for those who need one,” he said.
There are exceptions to the ban, including plastic bags for bulk items, produce and newspapers.
But customers will largely have to adjust to bringing their own reusable bags on shopping runs or using paper bags offered by retailers.
That’s where the issue lies for those who stop into a convenience store for milk, snacks or other items, said Calvin.
“If it’s mid-August and I’m picking up milk and ice cream, the condensation outside is going to begin immediately. If they offer me a paper bag, it’s going to fail,” he said. “Then (that store) becomes an inconvenience store.”
A rush on paper bags
Customers who forgot their reusable bags on the way to the store might just need to shell out for another reusable bag anyway.
There aren’t enough paper bag factories in the country to produce the amount retail and grocery stores in New York will require come March, according to the New York Post.
Some New York City stores ordered their packages of paper bags months ago and have not received them.
Novolex, one of the country’s biggest paper bag manufacturers, estimates the state will require 4 billion bags, the company spokesman Phil Rozenski told the paper.
That’s 52% of all the production capacity in North America. There are currently 16 manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and Canada.
Environmental groups last year were pushing for the state to mandate a fee on paper bags in addition to the plastic bag ban, saying without the fee, it would only lead to more littering from paper bags.
But state leaders chose instead to leave it to counties to decide whether to enact a paper bag fee
"The state should have learned from other areas that also only banned plastic bags without a paper bag fee — they just don’t work," the New York Public Interest Research Group said last March.
To charge or not to charge?
As retailers mull over whether to charge for paper bags, New York counties and cities are also considering opting into a 5-cent fee per paper bag within their borders.
The money would be divided between the state’s Environmental Protection Fund and a fund to distribute reusable bags in their communities.
Many have already decided against a fee or have indicated they plan to go that route.
Only four counties — Albany, Tompkins, Suffolk and Ulster — and New York City have opted in so far.
It remains to be seen whether stores in opt-in counties or cities will decide to add a separate 5-cent charge per paper bag to cover expenses from the business side, Calvin said.
Price Chopper will charge 5 cents per bag in all New York stores, but will forgo the revenue from the business side in counties or cities charging the 5-cent municipal fee.
In order words, customers won't get charged twice, said spokesperson Mona Golub. The company is also offering a small rebate to customers who bring in recyclable bags as a way to discourage single-use bags.
Wegmans will charge 5 cents for paper bags in all its stores, as will Tops.
Some municipalities against the charge feel it’s essentially another state tax, while others see a charge as a burden to lower income residents in rural or urban environments.
The only people exempt from paying the paper-bag fee would be those who receive welfare benefits. Lawmakers didn't want to unduly harm those with low income.
“It was seen as potentially creating a hardship on residents of the county,” said Eric Mulvihill, Cortland County’s spokesman, on the decision to not impose the fee.
Another problem is that none of the money would go to the municipality to facilitate collecting the bag fee from customers or to augment already existing recycling efforts, critics said.
If a county chose to charge the 5 cents, it would get to keep 2 cents for each bag to put toward a program to distribute reusable bags. The remaining 3 cents would go to the state's Environmental Protection Fund.
“We’d like to be able to use some of that money for other environmental recycling needs,” said David Bliss, chairman of Otsego County’s Board of Supervisors, noting the increased cost of recycling in recent years.
“We’re doing all the work, and the state’s getting most of the money.”
The counties that are imposing the fee, though, said it will hopefully encourage people to use recyclable bags.
"The best environmental outcomes are achieved when consumers switch to durable, reusable bags which they then use repeatedly," Tompkins County said when it voted to add the fee.
"The $.05 fee is intended to incentivize the use of reusable bags over single-use paper carryout bags."
What are the exceptions?
There are 11 instances where it's OK for a store to hand out a plastic bag, including when a bag holds:
uncooked meat, fish or poultry;
sliced or prepared foods;
a newspaper for delivery; or
There are also exemptions for bags sold in bulk, trash bags, food-storage bags, garment bags, prepackaged bags offered for sale and bags for carryout orders at restaurants and taverns.