The New York State Senate passed a bill this week that seeks to bar New York City from enacting fees to curb the use of disposable grocery bags in favor of more environmentally-friendly, reusable alternatives.
The State Senate has passed legislation introduced by Senator Simcha Felder of Brooklyn which prohibits the “imposition of any tax, fee or local charge on carry out merchandise bags in cities having a population of one million or more.” Felder’s bill seeks to reverse an about to go into effect 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags provided by New York City retailers.
Felder’s bill passed Tuesday (1/17). There is a similar bill in the State Assembly, sponsored by Assemblymember Michael Cusick of Staten Island. The Assembly bill is currently in the Cities Committee.
To become law, the bills would have to be passed by both houses of the legislature, and then signed by the Governor.
Do you have an opinion about this issue? Today’s the day to express it. Find the contact info for your State Senator here. Find your State Assemblymember here.
New York City’s Bag Fee On The Line
Proponents of New York City’s plastic bag fee, which passed the City Council 28-20 last May, say it will rein in the ubiquitous use of shopping bags — that pile up every year in landfills — and bring New York in line with cities like San Francisco and Washington D.C., which have passed similar legislation. Spearheaded by Council Member Brad Lander, the new five-cent fee on paper and plastic shopping bags is supposed to go into effect on February 15th.
Strictly speaking, the 5-cent fee is not a tax. The money is kept by retailers, and does not go back to the City. After the fee was passed, Senator Felder told The New York Times that it was “nothing less than a tax on the poor and the middle class — the most disadvantaged people.”
New York City residents purchasing groceries with food stamps or via the WIC program are actually exempt from the fee, as are soup kitchens. The 5-cent charge does not apply to bags obtained from pharmacies, produce and liquor stores.
“Anti-Environment Power Grab”
Council Member Lander described Senator Felder’s bill as a “small-minded, pro-waste, plastic-industry-funded, undemocratic, anti-environment power-grab.”
“With Trump and the GOP Congress rolling back climate protections and bullying cities, it would be shameful for Albany to join them. Don’t they have more important work to do?” Lander asked in a recent statement.
“New York State legislators who care about the environment must defend the right of localities to advance effective, forward-looking environmental policy,” Lander continued.
The fierce debate over the bill exposes broader disagreement regarding how New York City should reduce its production of solid waste. The de Blasio administration has set the highly ambitious goal of sending zero solid waste to landfills by 2030 — only 13 years away.
Every day, roughly 21,000 tons of residential and commercial trash is moved by truck, barge and rail out of New York City. While only a fraction of our overall waste output, plastic bags have become symbolic of the city’s larger struggle with trash.
New Yorkers use 5.2 billion carryout bags per year, the majority of which are not recycled, says Bag It NYC, a coalition of community-based organizations which has supported the fee. The City pays an estimated $10 million to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to out-of-state landfills every year, they say.
Unfairly Impacting Low-Income New Yorkers?
Southern Brooklyn lawmakers have led the way in arguing that the plastic bag fee would disproportionately impact low-income and elderly New Yorkers.
In the State Assembly, the effort to reverse the bag fee is supported by Steven Cymbrowitz, Dov Hikind, Peter J. Abbate, William Colton, Jaime Williams, Nicole Malliotakis and Pamela Harris of Southern Brooklyn, along with Walter Mosley of Fort Greene, Erik Dilan of North Brooklyn, Maritza Davila of Bushwick and Charles Barron of East New York.
New York City Council Members Mathieu Eugene (Flatbush) and David Greenfield (Midwood) voted against the bag fee last year. Jumaane Williams (Flatbush) came out in support of the fee — after supporting legislation was amended to require that a study be conducted of its impact on low-income New Yorkers.
Council Member Chaim Deutsch, who represents sections of Midwood, Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, said he supports measures to protect the environment, but that the law should be written to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags, not punish those who don’t.
Similarly, Council Member Mark Treyger of Coney Island acknowledged that some higher-end grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, reward customers who use reusable bags, but he maintained that “for residents of Southern Brooklyn, this is not an equitable solution.”
Council Member Lander’s office notes that fees like the one passed by the City Council “have been proven to reduce the consumption of plastic bags by 60% – 90%. Across age, race, religion, and neighborhood…”
Officials from Washington, DC, which has a large low-income population, testified at a New York City Council hearing in 2014 that their five cent bag fee has been successful across all of Washington’s income groups.
The District’s Department of Environment (DDOE) commissioned a survey in 2013 which 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.
What do you think about the plastic bag fee? How do you feel about the State Senate and Assembly’s efforts to reverse it?
(Alex Ellefson contributed reporting for this story.)
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The bill would ask customers to pay a 10-cent fee if they use plastic bags at groceries, bodegas and shops. The dime would go straight to the retailer, not the government as some detractors have claimed.
The bill stirred ardent emotions when it was debated last November. Supporters called it common sense legislation to spare NYC’s plastic-clogged waste-system and waterways. Detractors blasted it as government overreach and an unwitting tax on lower income residents.
After a quiet few months, New York City’s plastic bag bill is back. City Council legislation that would charge a 10-cent fee to consumers for single-use plastic and paper bags will be debated by the Council’s Sanitation Committee this Wednesday.
The legislation, Int. No. 209, is sponsored by Council Members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin.
Council Member Lander’s office notes that New York City pays an estimated $10 million to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills in other states every year.
Despite a State backed system for “taking back” and recycling these bags, “the vast majority” are not recycled, says Lander’s office. Cities like Washington, DC have been able to reduce plastic bag usage by 60 percent, they report.
New Yorkers use 5.2 billion paper and plastic carryout bags annually. These bags “clog up our trees and storm drains, litter our streets and beaches, [and] wind up as part of massive islands of plastic garbage in the oceans,” says Lander’s office.
Opponents of the bill say that collecting the 10-cent fee is a burden on small businesses. According to the legislation, retailers keep the ten cents charged to consumers who choose to take a single-use bag. Opponents have also questioned whether re-using grocery bags is sanitary.
Lander’s office will hold a rally and press conference on the steps of City Hall this Wednesday in advance of the 1pm hearing.
After the hearing, the five person Sanitation Committee will vote privately on the bill. A majority yes vote will send Int. No. 209 to the full City Council for a hearing. A majority no vote would resign the bill to the legislative landfill – much like Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s scuttled 2008 attempt to tax plastic bags.
Will New York go the way of Washington D.C. and Los Angeles, and tax the bag? We’ll know more on Wednesday.
Can you live without using a plastic bag for a week…or longer? Proponents of a charge on single-use plastic and paper bags are challenging New Yorkers to do just that.
Surfrider NYC and a coalition of environmental and neighborhood groups have declared September 15 – 21 #BYOBag Week. The groups are encouraging New Yorkers to bring their own reusable bags to the store.
Building To A Bag Law
#BYOBag Week is designed to build support for a proposed surcharge on single-use bags. In late March, Council Members Margaret Chin and Brad Lander introduced legislation designed to “dramatically reduce single-use plastic and paper bags in New York City by forcing us to think twice about whether we really need a bag and encourage reusable bag use.”
Those second thoughts would be triggered by a 10-cent charge on every non-reusable bag provided by grocery and retail stores. Stores would get to keep the 10 cents.
Reducing Waste Or Causing E. Coli?
The bill, which aims to reduce plastic bag use in New York City by 90 percent, is currently being reviewed by the Council’s Sanitation Committee. Supporters take pains to say it’s not a tax. Rather, they point to the hefty costs associated with plastic bag use. According to their numbers, New Yorkers use 5.2 billion plastic bags annually; getting those bags to landfills costs $10 million per year.
Despite a provision that would exempt WIC and SNAP recipients from paying the charge, some opponents of the bill fear it will hurt low-income families. A lobbyist for the plastic bag industry raised concerns that reliance on reusable bags will lead to an outbreak of diseases like E. coli, a claim that Council Member Lander was quick to refute.
The proposed legislation comes at a time when other cities and states are doubling-down on single-use bags – including California, which recently banned free plastic bags.
How To Bag It
To help New Yorkers ditch single-use bags, Surfrider has arranged a number of events for #BYOBag Week, including reusable bag giveaways in Brooklyn and a student-focused rally on Tuesday, September 16th. These events lead up to the People’s Climate March, a major environmental action to be held in New York City on Sunday September 21st.