Photograph by Kena Betancur, VIEWpress/Corbis/Getty Images
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Single-use plastic shopping bags are ubiquitous in New York City and many other places, but now the state is working on a law to curb their use.

Photograph by Kena Betancur, VIEWpress/Corbis/Getty Images

New York State to ban plastic bags—here's why

A new state budget is taking aim at single-use bags in an effort to reduce pollution, though exceptions will be allowed.

This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.

New York State is on the verge of banning plastic shopping bags, becoming the second U.S. state, after California, to ban them outright.

The ban, which is part of the state budget bill expected to pass Monday, would forbid retailers from providing shoppers with single-use bags. It would take effect next March.

Shopping bags are one of the most-banned items among single-use plastics and bag bans, which began to be enacted in 2000, continue to spread throughout the world. So far, at least 127 nations have imposed bans or taxes on plastic bags, according to a United Nations tally through July 2018. Europe began phasing out plastic bags 15 years ago. This week, the European Parliament took steps to ban 10 items most commonly found on European beaches, including bags, by 2021.

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23 billion plastic bags are used by state residents annually
NY Depart. of Environmental Conservation

In the United States, state action on bags has begun to pick up pace. Aside from California, which banned shopping bags in 2016, they are also essentially banned in Hawaii because every county in the state has outlawed them. The National Conference of State Legislatures has listed bag legislation here. An interactive industry website, Bag the Ban, tracks bans enacted or pending in cities, counties, as well as states.

Filmy shopping bags have been targeted because their lightweight nature makes them easily airborne. They can be found hanging from tree branches and clogging city drains. They are eaten by wildlife, including cattle and other large animals, and when shredded by birds and other small creatures.

In marine environments, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. Fish eat them. A number of whales have also died as a result of eating plastic bags. That includes a whale found earlier this month in the Philippines with more than 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach.

Related: Dead Whale Found Full of Plastic

Lightweight shopping bags also are difficult to recycle. Many municipal recycling plants won’t take them because they can clog equipment. Many grocery stores do collect used shopping bags in containers at the store. Those bags then become part of a circular remanufacturing system; they’re sent back to bag manufacturing plants to be remade into new bags. But collection by grocers is uneven and untold millions are never collected. Many other types of retailers have no collection systems set up.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, an estimated 23 billion plastic bags are used by residents across the state annually. New York City alone uses more than 10 billion single-use plastic bags a year, accounting for 1,700 tons of residential garbage every week. The city pays an estimated $12.5 million a year trucking those bags to out-of-state landfills.

New York’s ban would grant exceptions to food takeout bags, bags used to wrap meat or deli products, garment bags, and bags sold in bulk, including garbage pail liner bags.

The plan also would allow New York counties to impose a five-cent fee on paper bags.

National Geographic is committed to reducing plastics pollution. Learn more about our non-profit activities at natgeo.org/plastics. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.

The National Geographic Society and Sky Ocean Ventures have launched the Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge, which asks problem solvers around the globe to develop novel solutions to tackle the world’s plastic waste crisis. Have an idea? Submit your solution by June 11 at oceanplastic-challenge.org.