Plastic bag ban Q&A: Are reusable bags sanitary? Can I hand out plastic bags at my craft show or book sale?
Like it or not, New York will be saying goodbye to most of its plastic bags by Sunday.
The plastic bag ban, passed statewide last year, follows the lead of other states like California and Hawaii, which implemented bans on single-use plastic bags in the past decade.
With a few exceptions, such as smaller plastic bags for carrying bulk items like produce or nuts, plastic bags will be axed in grocery, retail and convenience stores across New York.
Most will be offering paper bags and reusable bags, and customers are already adjusting to new habits, like grabbing a stash of reusable bags from the car before heading into Wegmans (which already implemented its bag ban in January.)
The state Department of Environmental Conservation plans to hand out more than 270,000 free reusable bags to moderate and low-income communities across the state prior to March 1.
Some counties and cities opted into a 5-cent municipal fee per paper bag, including New York City, and Suffolk and Tompkins Counties.
Albany County's legislature plans to revote on its original decision to charge a municipal fee. Ulster County's requirement that retailers charge for paper bags, in effect since last summer, will evaporate once the state law takes effect.
With a shift in legality comes a barrage of questions about the day-to-day impacts of the bag ban.
Until now, free plastic bags were distributed by everyone from food vendors at county fairs to church members at their annual book sale.
In every home, there’s likely a bathroom trash bin with a plastic bag inside. And if you’re using reusable bags more often, shouldn’t you throw them in the washing machine every now and then?
The USA Today Network received questions from a number of readers on these and other issues, and we’ve done our best to answer them.
What type of stores are involved in the plastic bag ban?
All stores and vendors that collect sales tax will be required to adhere to the ban. That means clothing retailers, home improvement stores and convenience stores.
Are small business vendors at fairs, pop-ups and festivals exempt from the bag ban?
No. Any vendor or business that charges sales tax is required to forgo plastic bags. That includes vendors at craft sales, festivals and other events, even if they come from out of state. If they so choose, the vendors can charge customers for paper bags distributed as part of the sale of goods.
It’s unclear whether counties that have opted into a countywide 5-cent municipal fee for paper bags would require traveling vendors to adhere to that regulation. Only a few counties across the state have indicated they will opt into the fee, the proceeds of which would be split between the state and county.
What about churches and nonprofits holding rummage or book sales?
They’re not exempt from the ban either.
Even if an organization is tax exempt, like a church, they must forgo the use of plastic bags if they charge sales tax at any time during their operation, according to a DEC spokesperson
Certain activities, like craft fairs or Christmas tree sales, may require churches or nonprofits to charge sales tax to customers.
Can consumers buy plastic bags in bulk?
Bulk plastic bags are one of the exemptions allowed under New York law.
This includes garbage bags and sandwich baggies, which will remain on sale at grocery stores and other retailers.
A package of 1,000 single-use plastic bags, similar to what you might get at a grocery store or restaurant, sells on Amazon for $28.99.
Can you bring an old plastic bag into stores if you don’t have anything else to use?
Stores are required to allow customers to use whatever bag they’ve brought with them to the store for the purpose of carrying goods.
However, there have been reports of Wegmans customers reaching into available recycling bins of used plastic bags to find something to carry their groceries. That is not recommended, said Wegmans spokesperson Tracy Van Auker.
“There’s no way to know what those plastic bags have been used for previously. As always, food safety is a top concern for us,” she said.
Those recycling bins will remain in place for customers who would like to recycle old single-use plastic bags.
Is it unsanitary to reuse your bags for food, clothes and other items? How should you wash them?
Turns out bacteria loves reusable bags.
There’s a high likelihood of cross-contamination between foods contained in these bags, and very few people ever think to wash them, according to a 2011 study by the University of Arizona.
Out of about 100 reusable bags exposed to meat juices in Arizona and California, nearly all showed the presence of HPC bacteria and 8% grew E.coli after two hours in a car trunk, both of which can cause mild to severe illness in humans.
Hand or machine washing decreased the number of bacteria on the bags by more than 99.9%, according to the study. Nearly everyone interviewed admitted to never washing their reusable bags.
But don’t just throw your reusable bags into the washing machine.
Many options on the market are made of polypropylene, a rigid material that won’t play nice with your washer. These should be wiped down with warm, soapy water or disinfectant wipes and allowed to air dry, Van Auker said.
Bags made of other materials, such as cloth or canvas, could be machine washed or spot washed.
What are alternatives I can use for my cat litter, dog poop or small trash cans in my house?
You can find a number of products meant to replace the lowly plastic grocery bag in completely daily tasks.
You can even buy small reusable bags for your indoor trash cans or diaper pails. They run about $15 online.
Includes reporting from USA Today Network New York state team reporter Chad Arnold.
Sarah Taddeo is the consumer watchdog reporter for USA Today Network's New York State Team. She investigates stories about your consumer rights, including scams, negligent landlords, safety issues and wayward businesses.