Though it might be caught in a tree, NYC’s proposed Plastic Bag Bill refuses to die. Supporters have pushed New York’s City Council, and the Mayor, to pass the bill by Earth Day (April 22). Opponents call the bill a regressive tax on low-income New Yorkers and shop owners.
What’s the deal with the bill? Let’s look at some key questions.
What Would The Bag Bill Do?
The bill would require all retail and grocery stores to charge 10 cents per each plastic or paper bag used by you, the customer. That means if you go to a store and use five plastic bags, you’d pay 50 cents.
Certain places would be exempt: restaurants, street food vendors, and state-regulated wine and liquor stores. Also, produce, meat, and bulk food bags would still be free.
Ach! They Want More Of My Money?
The bill’s sponsors, Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, don’t want your money—they want to change your habits. They want you to stop and think before you automatically get a plastic bag at the bodega for a single bottle of water. This tactic (or, negative externality—inevitable hat tip to Planet Money) has proven effective elsewhere. Washington D.C. saw a 50-70% reduction in bag use after they passed a 5-cent tax.
Wait…Is This Another Tax?
Nope, not a tax. It’s a charge. Consumers pay it. Store owners collect it and retain the revenue without record-keeping requirements. The City, quite purposefully, is kept out of the picture.
Remember, New York City can’t levy a tax without the State’s ok.
Where Does The Money Go?
Store owners keep the 10-cent-fee to help foot the bill for stocking the bags. This also helps lawmakers avert lawsuits: since the money never goes to the government, cities are less vulnerable to claims that they’re levying an unconstitutional tax.
What’s So Bad About Plastic Bags, Anyway?
Where to start? What about those bags stuck in trees? New Yorkers use around 5.2 billion carryout bags each year. Even if those bags get “properly” thrown out, they can still blow away in to unwanted places – storm drains, bushes and the ocean.
Then there’s the cost. New Yorkers pay around $10 million per year to haul 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills in other states.
And, while you can recycle pristine plastic bags, dirty bags have no recycling value. Worse yet, they jam expensive machines at recycling plants like SIMS in Brooklyn.
Does The Bill Unfairly Impact Low-Income New Yorkers?
It does not intentionally try to be a burden, but the fear is understandable, which is why the bill’s creators have attempted to address the issue.
First, stores must waive the charge for bags if the customer is using SNAP or WIC. Emergency food providers, such as food pantries, would also be exempt from the charge.
Secondly, all households may avoid the charge at checkout by using reusable bags instead.
Finally, the proposed bill requires the City to work with community organizations to initiate a large, citywide reusable bag giveaway that includes special educational outreach events and giveaways targeted to low-income households.
Cities like Washington, DC have implemented similar bag fees and they maintain that low-income residents have not been disproportionately impacted.