Last year, New York became the latest city to consider a fee on plastic bags to reduce waste and encourage more environmentally friendly options. The plastic bag bill, introduced in the City Council in March 2014, has become a contentious issue. Advocates argue the bill will reduce plastic bags in the city’s waste stream. Opponents worry it could be an additional burden on low-income New Yorkers and that the bill is an over-reaching attempt to solve a relatively small problem.
The legislation, sponsored by Council members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, would introduce a 10-cent fee on both plastic and paper bags usually handed out at grocery stores, incentivizing customers to switch to reusable bags. Currently, the bill is five sponsors short of a 26-member majority. Another 13 sponsors would make it veto-proof.
The bill’s supporters are pushing the Mayor and City Council to pass it by April 22, Earth Day.
New Yorkers use 5.2 billion carryout bags per year, the majority of which are not recycled, says Bag It NYC. The city pays an estimated $10 million to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills in other states each year.
But Republican members of the Council and even some moderate Democrats have taken umbrage with what they call another ‘tax’ by the city, which would disproportionately affect low-income families and the elderly. There is greater opposition to the bill among Council members from the outer boroughs.
A Regressive Tax?
Opponents of the plastic bag bill argue that it will be an additional financial burden to the city’s most vulnerable communities, that recycling is an efficient alternative, and that reusable grocery bags can lead to the spread of bacteria and disease.
Council member David Greenfield has been vocal about his opposition to the bill. “It’s a regressive tax,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s taxing the people who can least afford it.”
Stressing that New Yorkers tend to shop for groceries in bulk, and that middle- and low-income families cannot afford to shop online, Greenfield said his concerns are pragmatic. “It’s a practical problem. No one’s going to carry 30-40 reusable bags to the grocery store. Ten cents a bag is then $4 each week, which is $200 in 50 weeks,” he said.
The flipside of the argument is that the bill has certain exemptions. Council member Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, has come out strongly in support of the proposal. “Some people say that the proposed plastic bag fee will be a burden on low-income communities, but this is simply not the case,” he emailed.
“SNAP [food stamp] and WIC recipients are exempt from the fee, and the bill ensures that citywide efforts will be made to give out reusable bags, especially to low-income people. Remembering to bring reusable bags is easy once you get used to doing it—my mother brings hers when she goes shopping now, and other people can learn to do it, too,” continued Reynoso.
“These bags are a burden on our environment, and they are particularly bad for our city’s recycling facilities. This will be a small change that will make a big difference,” Reynoso argued.
Greenfield brushed these caveats aside, calling the bill “overly-broad” for also targeting paper bags, which he says are easily recyclable. He also maintained that many low-income families either don’t qualify for food stamps or don’t want to apply for them, including undocumented immigrants. “It doesn’t really solve the problem,” Greenfield said, surprised that progressive council members are on board.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) and the Bag the Ban campaign have strongly opposed the attempt by the City Council to regulate and reduce plastic bag usage. APBA is a part of the Society of the Plastics Industry, the trade association for the plastics industry, and Bag the Ban is run by plastic-bag manufacturer NOVOLEX.
At a November 2014 City Council Sanitation Committee hearing on the bill, APBA chairman Mark Daniels argued that plastic bags are a negligible part of the city’s waste stream and that a fee would have minimal impact on litter while pushing people towards less-environmentally friendly alternatives, such as reusable bags made of heavy-duty plastic.
“The current legislation will not help the environment. It will turn shoppers toward inferior options and has the potential to cause economic harm to thousands of families,” Daniels said in his testimony before the Sanitation Committee.
“People who are doing the estimates of the cost believe that the total cost won’t be meaningful but who’s to judge what’s meaningful and not meaningful?”- Council Member Helen Rosenthal
Calls to the American Progressive Bag Alliance went unanswered.
Activist Bertha Lewis, founder and president of The Black Institute, also spoke out against the bill, first at the November hearing, and then in an op-ed for the Gotham Gazette. But it later emerged that a group founded by Lewis, the Black Leadership Action Coalition, had received payments from the APBA. Lewis denied that the payments had any bearing on her views towards the plastic bag bill.
Environmental Justice Advocates Support Bag Bill
Environmental justice groups representing the city’s low-income communities and communities of color have in fact come out in support of the bill. “They know it’s not only good for the environment and for cleaner neighborhoods, but also an important step towards reducing environmental burdens placed on low income neighborhoods, and making them more equitable,” Council member Brad Lander emailed.
(Seventy percent of the city’s daily trash volume is typically processed for long-distance shipment in just three neighborhoods: the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens.)
The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and Sustainable South Bronx are just a few of the groups that believe a fee on plastic bags would be beneficial, particularly since the bill also provides for outreach and distribution of reusable bags focused on low-income neighborhoods.
Citizens Committee of New York City, a non-profit that is part of Bag it NYC, a coalition of organizations supporting the bag fee, has handed out nearly 4,000 reusable canvas bags at public events over the last year. Last month, Bag it NYC held a rally at City Hall to push for the bill’s passage.
Saleen Shah, director of communications for the Citizens Committee, says the plastic bag bill is reasonable, practical legislation. “A 10-cent charge is not onerous,” he said. “All we’re asking for is a charge to incentivize people to bring reusable bags to the store.”
Calling the fee a “kind of tough love,” Shah said that issues of environmental degradation, in fact, disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income communities. He also believes that immigrant communities see the merits of the bill and that exemptions within it are sufficient to protect the most vulnerable residents.
Criticizing Governor Cuomo for channeling $41 million out of the climate change mitigation fund to the state’s general fund, Shah said, “We’re looking at little victories, small, practical, common sense victories, that can get us on par with the West Coast.”
West Side Seniors Speak Up
At a senior forum organized by Council member Helen Rosenthal’s office last Monday, Citizens Committee provided reusable bags to attendees. Rosenthal, who represents the West side of Manhattan, supports the bill but did express concern about how it would affect low-income neighborhoods and seniors in particular.
“People who are doing the estimates of the cost believe that the total cost won’t be meaningful but who’s to judge what’s meaningful and not meaningful?” Rosenthal asked. “The idea is to reduce usage, encourage the reusable bags. I do think change is hard and it’ll take a period of time to get used to it but I do think people will get used to it. I think the 10-cent fee will help change behavior and that’s the goal.”
“What on earth is taking us so long to pass it? Some of the council members’ objections at the hearing were that their constituents wouldn’t have reusable bags when they went shopping. I say to them, ‘Your constituents are not as stupid as you think they are.'”
The people at the forum seemed to agree. “I think anything for the environment is necessary even if it’s a little inconvenient and hard to get used to,” said Stuart Lahn, 74, a volunteer at a senior center. “It’s something I can live with. It’s more important to protect the environment than to have the convenience of plastic bags. I’ll just have to get used to better habits.”
Retired business analyst Suzanne Urich, 70, had even attended last November’s plastic bag hearing. “What on earth is taking us so long to pass it? Some of the council members’ objections at the hearing were that their constituents wouldn’t have reusable bags when they went shopping. I say to them, ‘Your constituents are not as stupid as you think they are,’” she said.
Far Cry From The West Coast
New York indeed lags behind other cities in curbing plastic bag usage.
Los Angeles County banned all single-use plastic bags in November 2010 and imposed a 10-cent fee on recyclable paper bags. By 2012, according to a Los Angeles County Department of Public Works report, there was a 94 percent reduction in the use of single-use bags—all plastic bags were eliminated and paper bag usage dropped by 25 percent.
Moreover, the reported financial impact per resident was a mere $4 for the year (below L.A. County’s initial expectations of $5.72).
More than 130 municipalities have passed similar legislation in recent years, imposing some form of bag fee or an outright ban. Among larger cities, San Francisco banned single-use plastic bags in 2007 for supermarkets and pharmacies.
San Francisco extended the ban in 2012 to apply to all retail and food establishments, and also established a 10-cent fee for check-out bags. These check-out bags must meet certain criteria and are limited to compostable plastic bags, recycled paper bags, and reusable bags.
Seattle banned plastic bags in 2012. In Washington D.C., a five-cent tax was imposed in 2009, and Portland, Maine’s 5-cent fee just went into effect this April 15.
Jennie Romer, attorney and founder of plasticbaglaws.org, has worked with many states and cities over the last six years to craft laws on plastic bags. “In New York City, the point is to have people bring their own bags,” she said. “It’s [the fee] a disincentive. Across the country, people are bringing their own bags or refusing plastic bags if they only have a few items. There’s a huge behavior change.”
Romer insists that people adapt quickly to plastic bag laws and that 137 municipalities with different demographics have seen similar results.
Washington DC’s law is likely the closest parallel to the proposed legislation in New York City.
It imposes a tax on all carryout bags, rather than a ban, and the District Department of Environment (DDOE) hands out thousands of reusable bags every year, particularly to low-income and senior communities.
The DDOE commissioned surveys in 2010 and 2013 to gauge the effects and perception of their plastic bag law. The 2013 survey, conducted by OpinionWorks, found that 83 percent of residents and 90 percent of businesses said they either supported the bag fee or had no strong feelings about it. Eight out of ten residents said they had reduced their use of disposable bags because of the fee.
DC city officials argue that the legislation has been successful across all of Washington’s income groups.
In the 2013 survey, 80 percent of residents in the District’s most financially disadvantaged ward supported or had no strong feelings about the law. This number seems to call into question what Romer calls the “narrative created by the plastic bag industry all over the country” that a fee disproportionately impacts lower income communities. “It’s offensive,” she said, for them to think that people with less money cannot be concerned about the environment.
Romer also argued that low-income residents are actually hit harder by the cost of bags embedded in the price of food and local taxes for cleaning up litter.
“I know it [a bag fee] works,” said retiree Ellen Durant, 81, after Council member Rosenthal’s forum last week. “My children and grandchildren live in California and I’ve seen it work first hand.”
Durant was reluctant about her support for the bill, even though she understands the logic behind it. “I don’t like it but I know it’s important. I think people don’t want to spend 10 cents.” But she conceded, “I guess I’ll bring a reusable bag with me so I don’t have to pay.”
Samar Khurshid is a freelance journalist living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He recently graduated with a Master’s degree from New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and mainly covers politics for the Gotham Gazette. Khurshid grew up in New Delhi, India and worked for the Hindustan Times, a national newspaper, for two years before moving to New York. Khurshid’s last article for New York Environment Report was Coastal Communities Risk Being Swept Away by Rising Insurance Costs.