Pssst. There’s A Plastic Bag Hearing This Wednesday

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.

City Council Gets In Step with the People’s Climate March

On Sunday, September 21st, New York City will make history by hosting what will almost certainly be the world’s largest climate change demonstration—and the City Council has officially gone on record in support of the event.

Resolution 356, drafted by Council Member Donovan Richards (who also chairs the Committee on Environmental Protection), not only endorses the People’s Climate March but also “recognizes the dangers of climate change to human health and the environment.”

More than 1,000 organizations have signed on to support the march—from environmental justice groups to faith and conservation groups—and tens of thousands of people are expected to attend. “It’s unprecedented, the bringing together of groups that have not always worked together,” said Eddie Bautista, head of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, to Capital New York.

Members of the City Council have committed to march on Sunday, too.

Five Questions for the Councilman

While Resolution 356 may not alter our nation’s path with regards to climate change, it is an important gesture from NYC’s  lawmaking body, and a strong signal to Mayor de Blasio: now is the time for climate action.

In order to get a better sense of Council Member Richard’s stance on climate change, and his thoughts on the People’s Climate March, NYER posed the following questions. Here’s how Richards replied:

NYER: Why did you develop Resolution 356?
Council Member Richards: Resolution 356 offered me a unique opportunity as the Chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection to address the long standing issue of climate change. The warming of the globe and the threat to not only the earth but also more importantly to human life, can no longer be considered the elephant in the room. I am surprised that the council took so long to make a largely ceremonial but important step. The resolution also culminated perfectly with the events surrounding climate week in New York City such as the People’s Climate March and the UN Climate Change Summit so the timing worked perfectly.

NYER: What do you hope the People’s Climate March achieves?
CM Richards: Climate change affects us all and the march is symbolic of the role the individual plays to reverse the extensive damage to the planet. The most important thing about the People’s Climate March is what happens on the 22nd. Marches have always been about organizing people around a common cause, but the work comes after acknowledging your contribution to a movement, maintaining momentum and making an impact whether that be a locally or worldwide.

NYER: Councilmen Vincent Ignizio and Steven Matteo, both of Staten Island, formally abstained from a vote on Resolution 356 — even though their borough was the hardest hit during Hurricane Sandy. Do you know why they abstained? (Ed. note: NYER did attempt to contact both CM Ignizio and Matteo; both declined to comment.)
CM Richards: I trust my colleagues to vote in a manner that represents the needs and interests of their constituency.

NYER: Where do you think NYC could be acting faster with regard to climate change?
CM Richards: The list of things that New York City can do to address climate change is exhaustive but to name a few; the city can begin by creating an official energy policy, set more ambitious goals such as fully transitioning to renewable energy in the next decade, retrofitting and updating NYCHA housing for resiliency and ending the direct subsidization of fossil fuels.

NYER: What gives you hope about climate change?
CM Richards: There is a wealth of compelling evidence that our love affair with fossil fuels, consumerism and denial must end now. Simply, faith is the substance of things hoped for- the evidence of things not yet seen and I believe it is not too late to make the right decisions that will reverse some of the damage human activity has caused.


City Council & Enviro Groups: “Mayor de Blasio, Show Us Your Resiliency Plan”

As Mayor de Blasio prepares to give a major address at Cooper Union tonight about the future of New York City, environmental advocates and City Council members are urging him to speak to the dangers of climate change and present his strategy for developing a more sustainable city.

Last week, the U.N. released a stark new assessment of the growing impacts of climate change that are being felt across the globe.

“As a representative of the Rockaways, I witnessed how unprepared our city was during Hurricane Sandy,” said Donovan Richards, chair of the City Council’s Environmental Protection committee. “I relish the opportunity to work with this administration to ensure we never find ourselves in that position again.”

Photo credit: NYLCV
Photo credit: NYLCV

A number of other Council Members issued similar statements at a press conference this morning on the steps of City Hall. They also argued that New York City needs an updated, far-ranging sustainability plan that looks at issues like housing and renewable energy.

Mayor de Blasio has made the development of thousands of units of affordable housing one of the key objectives of his administration.

Council Member Antonio Reynoso said today that new housing must be “equally environmentally responsible.” And Reynoso, who represents Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has seen a proliferation of large-scale housing development, pointed to the scarcity of “green and open space” in his district.

Council Members, along with advocacy groups like the New York League of Conservation Voters and Transportation Alternatives, were joined by some members of the development community.

“Superstorm Sandy exposed troublesome vulnerabilities in the City’s major energy, transportation and infrastructure systems,” stated Building Congress President Richard T. Anderson.

Those vulnerabilities can only be addressed, said Anderson, “by incorporating far greater standards for redundancy and sustainability in our capital programs.”

The coalition is calling on Mayor de Blasio to meet three “milestones” in the next one-hundred days, and to “put a healthy environment and climate resiliency…at the center of [his] vision” for New York City.

# 1: By May 1st, 2014, commit to building “affordably and sustainably.” 

On May 1st, the de Blasio administration will announce its strategy to add and preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over the next 10 years. “Every effort should be made to make that housing environmentally sustainable and climate resilient,” says the coalition.

# 2: By June 1st, 2014, “show us your resiliency plan.”

The groups acknowledged that under the de Blasio administration, there has been a “renewed focus on helping New Yorkers recover from the impacts of Superstorm Sandy.”

But, they added, “there is still much work to be done to prepare the city for future extreme weather events. We urge Mayor de Blasio to issue a comprehensive and concrete plan that will make sure New York is prepared for the next big storm and a changing climate.”

#3: By June 30th, 2014, commit to investing in infrastructure, in order to “invest in the future.”

New York City spent an average of $9.5 billion on infrastructure in each of the last five years, the coalition stated.

As the Mayor and the Council finalize the city’s budget for the next fiscal year, which will begin on July 1st,  advocates and Council Members stated that Mayor de Blasio should “integrate sustainability and resiliency planning into the capital program.”

It was critical, they said, that the city “ensure roads, bridges, schools, parks and environmental facilities are in a good state of repair.”

Time is of the essence, the coalition added. Hurricane season starts on June 1st.

Christine Quinn: Most “Pro-Environment” Speaker in Council’s History

So says the New York League of Conservation Voters, which has just released its review of the New York City Council’s 2012-13 legislative performance on environmental and sustainability issues.

In their Environmental Scorecard, the League argues that:

“From sustainable food and clean energy, to green buildings and mass transit, she [Quinn] played a pivotal role in the transformation of New York City into the sustainability leader it is today. The sheer volume of environmental legislation adopted by the Council…reflect the high priority Quinn placed on sustainability.”

And the League says that Quinn not only worked with the Bloomberg administration “to advance its environmental agenda” but the Council “frequently initiated and approved legislation that was not a priority on the other side of City Hall.”

The scorecard highlights areas—Solid Waste and Recycling, Air Quality, Climate Change and Resiliency, Transportation, Food Access, and Green Buildings—where the NYLCV says the Council made major advances under Quinn’s leadership.

The League also looks at 17 pieces of key legislation passed last year, and ranks the environmental performance of each 2012-13 Council Member, including new speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Legacy of Sandy Visible in Council’s Environmental Leadership

The New York City Council has a revamped Environmental Protection Committee with new leadership, and an entirely new committee that will focus on climate resiliency and rebuilding issues.

The leadership and makeup of the two committees were announced this week. Much of the Council’s new environmental leadership hails from New York City communities battered by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, like the Rockaways, South Brooklyn and South-East Queens, large sections of Manhattan’s waterfront, and the Eastern Shore of Staten Island.

Building on the Council’s Efforts to Address Climate Change

The Environmental Protection Committee was highly active under the leadership of outgoing Member James Gennaro, a trained geologist from Queens, who has now joined the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Gennaro will serve as the DEC’s Deputy Commissioner for New York City Sustainability and Resiliency.

During Gennaro’s tenure, the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee developed numerous pieces of legislation which helped to lock-in and expand Bloomberg-administration sustainability initiatives.

One of the Committee’s arguably greatest achievements during that period was crafting legislation that required the city to take the needs of its most vulnerable residents into account as it planned for climate change.

The Committee will now be chaired by Donovan Richards, who represents Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Springfield Gardens and Rosedale, Queens. Before joining the Council, Richards served as chief of staff for former Council Member James Sanders, Jr. Richards won Sanders’ seat in a special election last February.

Richards co-sponsored legislation last fall with Brad Lander and other Council Members to create a public online database tracking how federal Sandy relief funds are distributed and used. And, with local residents, he helped to lead a public tour last May of mold infested homes in the Rockaways to demand more immediate assistance for Sandy victims.

Richards has also called “for the Department of Environmental Protection to fund a $14 million dollar project in Rosedale’s Brookville Triangle to alleviate flooding.”

Connection to Past Leadership

Richards will be joined on the Environmental Protection Committee by:

  • Stephen Levin, who represents Brooklyn Heights, Greenpoint, parts of Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Boerum Hill, Brooklyn;
  • Costa Constantinides, who served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Council Member Gennaro and represents Astoria and parts of Long Island City, Woodside, East Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights, Queens;
  • Rory Lancman, who served as a state assembly member and will be representing Hillcrest, Queens; and
  • Eric Ulrich, who represents most of the Rockaways and several neighborhoods in South Queens.

Levin and Ulrich are incumbents; the rest of the Committee’s members are new to the Council.

Special Focus on Preparing for the Next Storm

The City Council has also created a Recovery and Resiliency Committee, which will be chaired by newly-elected Mark Treyger, representing Coney Island, Bensonhurst, Gravesend and Sea Gate, Brooklyn neighborhoods hard hit by Sandy.

Treyger’s Council biography states that before his election, he formed STRONG (Sandy Task-Force Recovery Organized by Neighborhood Groups) “to help spearhead the fight against the opening of a dangerous garbage station in Southwest Brooklyn and fight for federal recovery dollars to improve Coney Island and Sea Gate’s sewer system, beaches, and other vital infrastructure”.

Treyger will be joined on the Recovery and Resiliency Committee by Donovan Richards and Eric Ulrich, along with:

  • Incumbent Rosie Mendez, representing neighborhoods along the East River in Manhattan;
  • Incumbent Margaret Chin, representing Lower Manhattan;
  • Newly-elected Carlos Menchaca, representing Sunset Park and a section of the Brooklyn waterfront; and
  • Newcomer Steven Matteo, representing Staten Island’s “mid-Island” district.

Matteo served as chief of staff for outgoing Member James Oddo, who is now Staten Island’s borough president.

Matteo’s district includes communities such as New Dorp and Ocean Breeze, which suffered some of the greatest physical devastation and loss of life during Sandy.

After his appointment, Matteo, one of three Republicans on the Council, declared in a statement, “Sandy will be my number one priority. I am honored to be part of the team of Council Members that will look to make the City more resilient in the face of future storms.”

No Foam…?

The City Council is considering legislation that would ban styrofoam cups and other take-out containers in New York City.

The Council is currently looking at at least three separate foam-related bills, one of which would require that all take-out containers from shops and restaurants be made of recyclable material.

A second bill would mandate a pilot foam recycling project; and a third, would ban foam cups and other take-out containers outright by July, 2015. The ban would be put in place, the legislation said, if the city found that foam could not be recycled in a manner that was “environmentally responsible, economically practical, [and] safe for employees”.

That bill, 1060A, would forbid food establishments from offering “single-service articles” made from polystyrene, such as cups, plates, cutlery, and containers. Stores would also be forbidden from offering foam packing peanuts.

The legislation has the support of Council Member and Public Advocate-elect Letitia James, who chairs the Council’s Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee.

WNYC reported that the Committee held a public hearing on the pending legislation yesterday which drew both supporters and opponents of a ban.

The alternative to a ban on foam -recycling- may or may not be feasible. If feasible, it could involve trucking the foam containers out of the city. Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee Counsel Jarrett Hova said that two major challenges would be sorting light-weight, foam-based products for recycling, and finding a cost-effective market for the material.

While polystyrene represents less than one-percent of New York City’s household plastics waste stream, according to a 2004 analysis, Hova said that there were other considerations. Hova noted that advocates for a ban have raised both public health and environmental concerns about the use of polystyrene.

The Council has not yet confirmed whether votes on the three pending bills will take place by the end of 2013.

Council Wants City to Prepare for Extreme Weather of Climate Change

For Sabrina Terry, the Sunset Park neighborhood where she works is at the front line of climate change.

The community along the Brooklyn waterfront is home to waste transfer stations, power plants, industrial facilities and tens of thousands of mostly low-wage immigrants. Devastating storm surges expected to be brought on by radically altered weather could flood the area and create a toxic brew.

“If you have a storm, who knows what is being washed up into the community? It’s not just the water — it’s what is being carried,” said Terry, an environmental justice planner who works for Uprose, a community-based organization.

Terry and her group have been vocal about their belief that the city wasn’t preparing sufficiently for the impact that climate change would have on coastal communities already struggling with environmental problems.

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]