Aug 17 2015
NYC’s Plastic Bag Bill Lives Despite Mayor’s Ambivalence
Brad Lander hands out reusable bags outside City Hall last Thursday.
Photo credit: Jeff Tancil
August 17, 2015
NYC’s Plastic Bag Bill Lives Despite Mayor’s Ambivalence

Category

Government, Waste

New York City’s “Plastic Bag Bill” is not dead. Stuck in legislative purgatory since late 2014, the bill has seemingly gathered momentum in recent months—but will it be enough to push the Mayor off the sidelines?

Councilmember Brad Lander of Brooklyn has been holding summertime reusable bag giveaways, including one last week in front of City Hall. Lander and other supporters of the bill, including Councilmember Costa Constantinides, are putting bags in the hands of New Yorkers—perhaps persuading some folks who are reluctant to pay for a once-free plastic bag.

But, one crucial ally is still missing: Mayor Bill de Blasio. While the recent OneNYC Plan commits the city to dramatically reducing plastic bag waste, the Mayor has offered scant details on how that’ll happen. For now, it’s not the proposed bag bill; the Mayor has steadfastly refused to weigh in on the legislation.

Co-sponsored by Lander and Councilmember Margaret Chin, the Plastic Bag Bill would require New York City stores to charge 10 cents for every paper and plastic bag they give out. Stores keep the fee. There are exemptions for meat and produce items, as well as for New Yorkers using the WIC and SNAP programs.

At the City Hall giveaway, Lander said he was “hopeful” the Mayor would “finalize his position” in the next few months.

The legislation needs a mere four more votes to pass in the City Council—what’s holding de Blasio back?

Reason #1: Is It Basic Math?

Plastic bags wave from a tree in New York City.

Plastic bags wave from a tree in New York City.

Perhaps it’s simple political math: with his poll numbers faltering and a recent string of political misfires, the Mayor may be reluctant to throw weight behind another seemingly unpopular measure.

A recent poll by NBC News 4, The Wall Street Journal and Marist College sure makes the bill sound unpopular: 63% of respondents opposed the proposed 10-cent charge.

But at last week’s giveaway, Lander noted that he talks to numerous New Yorkers at similar events and “everyone agrees: something needs to be done.”

The numbers bear this out. New Yorkers throw out 5.2 billion plastic bags each year, which costs the city over $12 million a year to transport to landfills. And at last Thursday’s event at least, New Yorkers seemed pleased to get reusable bags and receptive to the idea of changing ingrained habits.

Reason #2: New Yorkers Love Free Plastic Bags?

The Plastic Bag Bill would place a 10-cent fee on each bag handed out by retailers.

The Plastic Bag Bill would place a 10-cent fee on each bag handed out by retailers. Photo credit: William Miller.

As Councilmember Lander conceded, New Yorkers are reluctant to pay for something that used to be free.

But is this a perverse bit of New York entitlement? Do we think we’re owed free plastic bags? Are we simply too stressed to remember to bring reusable bags with us? Or, are we all so cranky from other urban inconveniences that we resent yet another expense, albeit a seemingly modest one?

We certainly don’t seem to think the bags are worth the money. In his recent opus on the bag battle, New York Magazine’s Adam Sternbergh noted that “(O)ne paradox of the pro-bag position is having to argue that plastic bags are a valuable commodity that people nonetheless aren’t willing to pay a few cents for.”

There are some folks who re-use the bags as trash liners and makeshift tote bags. Virtuous as this may be, plastic bags can only be re-used for so long before they end up in the trash. Some folks also claim the bags don’t lead to litter, a charge that’s hard to square with Bag It NYC’s map of errant plastic bags.

Reason #3: Is It Government Over-Reach…Or An Attack on the Poor?

Opponents have done a good job re-branding the bill as a tax and another “nanny-state” overreach. While the ten-cent charge is a fee, not a tax (the dime goes back to store owners, not the government), New Yorkers may generally be skeptical of government efforts to re-shape habits. Witness the fate of former Mayor Bloomberg’s over-sized soda ban.

And, despite exemptions for New Yorkers using food stamps and WIC, there have been charges that the proposed fee disproportionately targets poor and minority residents, an assertion that has to give pause to a Mayor who won office in part by promising to end New York’s yawning income gap.

It also might explain City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito’s reluctance to endorse the fee. A leading Bronx reverend recently urged the Speaker to “sack” the fee lest it “push vulnerable families, seniors and immigrants from slipping below the poverty line.”

Councilmembers Brad Lander and Costa Constantinides hand out reusable bags to eager New Yorkers.

Councilmembers Brad Lander and Costa Constantinides hand out reusable bags to eager New Yorkers. Photo via Brad Lander.

This puts a sharper focus on Lander’s bag giveaways. Getting free reusables into the hands of New Yorkers might put a friendlier face on the bill, showing that the fee is not part of a government-engineered “stick” meant to beat New Yorkers in to better habits.

Rather, the city is willing to help its citizens make practical, achievable changes that will curb waste and save money. This sort of community outreach worked in Washington D.C., where a recent 5-cent fee was much more enthusiastically embraced.

We’ll see if there are more bag giveaways here…and if they stir the Mayor and Council Speaker to some sort of action.

Brad Lander hands out reusable bags outside City Hall last Thursday.
Photo credit: Jeff Tancil