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Prepare for the NYS Plastic Bag Ban

You may have already read about the “New York State Bag Waste Reduction Act” making New York State the second state in the union, after California, to ban single-use plastic bags. This new bill takes effect on March 1, 2020 and may also require you to collect a 5 cent tax on paper bags if your customers are walking away with them.

If you’ve read the news on this bill and still feel you’re in the dark, you’re not alone. We’ve had a number of customers call with questions and we figured it was time to dig down and get some answers. So, we did something terrible so you didn’t have to. We read the legislation.

The questions and answers below should hopefully clarify the steps you’ll need to take to ensure you’re compliant when March rolls around. Keep in mind though that we’re a bag company not a law firm. You should check in with your lawyer before settling on a plan (yes, our lawyer made us say that).

So, without further adieu, the NYS Bag Waste Reduction Act Q&A:

Q: Can any NYS businesses use plastic bags?

There are a number of notable exceptions to the ban. These exceptions also hold for the paper bag tax if your city or county imposes one:

  • Reusable bags (more about this to come)
  • Bags used to contain or wrap uncooked meat, fish or poultry.
  • Bags used to hold bulk items such as fruits, vegetables, etc.
  • Bags used to hold food that’s been sliced or prepared to order
  • Bags for newspaper deliveries
  • Bags sold in bulk (e.g., trash bags, food storage bags)
  • Restaurant to go bags used for carryout or food delivery
  • Pharmacy bags for prescription drugs
  • Trash bags
  • Garment bags
  • Food storage bags
  • Bags prepackaged for sale

Q: What about paper bags?

There is no ban on paper bags. However, the plastic bag legislation includes an optional tax on paper bags that each county or city in NY can impose at their discretion. The exceptions for plastic bags also apply to paper bags. In addition, there are a few customers who are protected from the paper bag tax (if your city or county imposes one). We think you won’t be too surprised by this list of customers you won’t have to charge:

  • New York State including its agencies, instrumentalities, and public corporations
  • The United States of America, and any of its agencies and instrumentalities
  • The United Nations or any international organization of which the United States of America is a member
  • We recommend that you ask for everyone to pay the fee and require them to provide proof if they claim to be an exception.

Q: What’s a reusable bag?

The law defines a reusable bag as one that is either:

  • A bag, with handles, that’s made of cloth or other machine washable fabric
  • A durable bag with handles that is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse

Plastic bags are not excluded but we are left guessing as to what would make a plastic bag reusable in the eyes of NY. The law has been left somewhat ambiguous here and we’re hopeful that it becomes more explicit as it evolves. Some precedent has been set, however. Many cities in the US have defined a reusable bag as one that is at least 2.25 mil thick [2]. Some cities require that the manufacturer be listed and that the print contains a message that the bag is intended for multiple use. Since New York has not been as explicit, we urge you to err on the side of caution.

Q: Can I give away items in a plastic bag?

Nope, not unless it’s for one of the purposes listed above. Similarly, if you’re giving away items in paper bags, and your city or county has imposed a paper bag tax, your customer must pay a tax for those bags. Again, there are exemptions. Check out the “Can any NYS businesses use plastic bags?” section.

Q: What happens if I continue to use plastic bags?

If you continue to use plastic bags, be prepared for some hefty fines if your uses aren't covered by the exceptions noted above. The first violation is a freebee. Your second violation in the calendar year will run you $250. Subsequent violations in that year will run you $500. Each customer transaction can constitute no more than one violation.

Q: Which cities and counties are going to impose a paper bag tax?

  • New York City has promised to impose the tax on March 1, 2020 (the same day the Waste Reduction Act goes into effect) [1].
  • Long Beach and Suffolk County (both in Long Island) previously implemented a 5 cent plastic and paper bag tax [1]. Presumably, they will continue to tax paper bags after March 1, 2020. They will be required to ban plastic bags after the Waste Reduction Act takes effect.
  • Ulster County is scheduled to adopt a paper bag fee in July 2019 [1].

Q: My city or county is imposing a paper bag tax. What now?

There are a few things to note:

  • You will need to collect 5 cents for each bag you provide to your customer.
  • The purchase receipt or sales slip must show the number of bags you gave to the customer and what they were charged for those bags.
  • You may not account for the bag fee as a retail sale. It has to be accounted for as a tax.
  • Tax payments for distributed paper bags need to be paid quarterly to your city or county by the 20th of the month following the end of the quarter.
  • The local law (for the city or county imposing the tax) is required to provide details on what information you’re required to collect to remain compliant. Make sure to give the regulations a once over or talk to your lawyer (in particular if you’ll be distributing a large number of bags).

Q: When does this all take effect?

The New York State law banning plastic bags and allowing for a tax on paper bags takes effect on March 1, 2020. By that date, you should make sure you’re not distributing plastic bags to your customers aside from the exceptions noted above.You’ll also want to check in with your city or county to see if they’ll be imposing a paper bag tax. It’s possible that they’ll impose that tax even earlier than March 1, 2020.

Q: Where’d you get all this info?

Most of the information here was distilled from the text of the New York State Waste Reduction Act. Other sources are noted below:

  1. New York Times / Paper or Plastic? Time to Bring Your Own Bag
  2. Plastic Bag Laws

We hope this information will help you prepare. Feel free to call or email if you have additional questions.

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