New York is finally bagging plastic bags. The statewide ban on the highly polluting items went into effect March 1. But enforcement, which was supposed to start a month later, was delayed by the one-two punch of a lawsuit and the coronavirus pandemic. Now, more than six months later, enforcement began.

Recently the court ruled the state could proceed after giving 30 days notice. Since then the Department of Environmental Conservation has been reaching out to grocery stores, retailers, and others, to provide notice of the start of enforcement and answer questions. “The Court’s decision is a victory and a vindication of New York State’s efforts to end the scourge of single-use plastic bags and a direct rebuke to the plastic bag manufacturers who tried to stop the law and DEC’s regulations to implement it,” DEC Commissioner Basil Segos said in a statement. “As we have for many months, DEC is encouraging New Yorkers to make the switch to reusable bags whenever and wherever they shop and to use common-sense precautions to keep reusable bags clean. The Court has ruled and DEC will begin to enforce the ban.

The new state law help reduces plastic waste, prohibits the distribution of plastic carryout bags by any vendor required to collect New York State sales tax. The law allows distribution of paper bags upon payment of a 5-cent fee. There are limited exemptions to the ban, such as plastic bags used solely to contain uncooked meat, fish, seafood and poultry, as well as food that is sliced or prepared to order. Also exempt are plastic bags used for newspaper deliveries or sold as trash bags, food storage bags, garment bags, bags provided by a restaurant and bags provided by pharmacies to carry prescription drugs.

Enforcement of the ban was held back in part by the coronavirus pandemic, as several stores banned shoppers from bringing their reusable bags when the spread of COVID-19 was at its height in the state. But the new law has also faced fierce opposition from plastic bag makers and convenience store owners, who brought a lawsuit challenging it. These groups have argued that the ban will bankrupt them. American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance director Zachary Taylor told that the law was “unworkable” and it would be harder for smaller stores to acquire paper bags during the pandemic. Some bag makers and store owners are still trying to delay the ban in court, but not all retailers are against the new law.

New Yorkers currently use around 23 billion plastic bags a year, but only use each bag for an average of 12 minutes, according to DEC figures. Around 85 per cent of those bags end up in landfills, recycling machines, streets or rivers and oceans.