Cuomo is leaving New Yorkers twisting in the wind

Woman carrying plastic bags
Woman carrying plastic bags

Cuomo is leaving New Yorkers twisting in the wind

The governor has overruled New York City's plastic bag fee and buried his task force's report on a statewide solution
January 23, 2018

Every month, New York City residents send 750 million plastic bags to landfills, which is more than 7,500 tons of solid waste. Thanks to his failure of leadership on the issue, every additional ton is on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s shoulders.

Plastic bags aren’t just needless solid waste. They are made from petroleum. They litter our trees and parks, clog our storm drains and recycling equipment, and foul our oceans and beaches.

In 2016, with New York City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, I led the effort in the New York City Council to do something about plastic bag waste. Our Bring Your Own Bag Law, which was passed by the City Council in May 2016, would have placed a 5-cent fee on all carryout bags. In cities, states and countries around the world, bag fees have reduced plastic bag waste by 50 to 90 percent. It would have worked here.

Unfortunately, Cuomo, state Sen. Simcha Felder and the state Legislature killed the city’s plastic bag law before it went into effect.

When the governor signed state legislation nullifying our law in February, he promised to solve the problem himself. He appointed a state Plastic Bag Task Force, and gave them this charge:

“New York has led the nation by taking bold action to protect our environment – and this task force marks another step forward in that effort. … The costly and negative impact of plastic bags on New York’s natural resources is a statewide issue that demands a statewide solution.”

Cuomo has not only failed to deliver a statewide solution, he has failed even to deliver a proposal. The task force’s report that was released earlier this monthis a total failure of leadership by Cuomo.

The report is anything but “bold action.” While it details “the costly and negative impact” of plastic bags, it completely fails to deliver the promised statewide solution. Instead, it offers merely a list of eight legislative options that could have been complied from internet research. Two of those options amount to doing nothing.

The first option proposed that we “strengthen and enforce” New York City’s recycling policy that the report itself acknowledges has been ineffective. And the eighth option literally suggests we “continue existing policies.” Translation: do nothing at all.

Meanwhile, cities and states all across the world (and jurisdictions right in our backyard – Long Beach and Suffolk County) have adopted strong policies to reduce plastic bag waste.

A close reading of the report makes it crystal clear that only two of the options put forward by the task force can reasonably be called effective: a fee on all carryout bags, or a ban on thin plastic bags with a fee on all others, such as paper bags and other single-use bags.

The evidence for the effectiveness of fees and hybrid policies that combine a ban along with fees can be found in Chicago (42 percent reduction in single-use bag consumption), Washington, D.C., (50 percent reduction) and Los Angeles (94 percent). And it’s not just in the United States: Hong Kong imposed a fee on plastic bags in 2015 and saw a 90 percent reduction in their use. Even conservative U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May just announced an expansion of England’s 5-pence plastic bag law to small retailers because it is working.

Meanwhile, in supposedly progressive New York, we have sent more than 8 billion plastic bags to landfills since Cuomo killed our law last year, with no end in sight.

Cuomo’s action – well, actually his action last year, and his inaction this year – has put New York City in an impossible situation. As the Daily News editorial board wrote, “If New York City dares act again, it’s all but certain that an emboldened Felder will pull out the rug again, and Cuomo will let him get away with it. Having twice now failed to take a stand, the governor owns this city’s billions of plastic bags. On this one, he left us twisting in the wind.”

Cuomo owes New Yorkers the statewide solution he promised.

Brad Lander
is a New York City councilman who represents the 39th District in Brooklyn.