Kicking the bag down the road

Plastic bags floating in water.
Plastic bags floating in water.
Rich Carey / Shutterstock

Kicking the bag down the road

Billions of plastic bags pollute NYC and Albany won’t let the city stop it.
April 16, 2018

Steve Wolk would like the people of New York City to know that they could go on living normal lives without free disposable bags. Wolk, who is the chairman of the Sustainability Advisory Board in the Westchester County town of New Castle, helped draft that town’s ordinance banning plastic bags and putting a 10-cent fee on paper bags. It took effect on Jan. 1, 2017. “It’s very scary for people,” he said. “But if this happens in New York City, nine months from now people will be feeling very proud of themselves, as they are in New Castle.”

The question is whether the big city’s residents will get the same chance as the affluent Westchester town did. Last year, New York City was poised to become one of the largest jurisdictions in the world to curb plastic bag use. After years of research, debate and compromise, the New York City Council passed a 5-cent minimum fee on single-use plastic bags, which cost the city $12.5 million per year to send to landfills. The bags clog recycling and sewage plants, pollute waterways and blow along the city’s sidewalks, festooning its trees and lampposts with a grim and grimy regularity. The city’s residents use an estimated 10 billion bags per year.

The law, which had exemptions for shoppers who receive public assistance, was scheduled to go into effect in February 2017. But it was blocked after state Sen. Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, introduced legislation that would have prevented any municipality in the state with more than 1 million residents from enacting a plastic bag fee. Felder cited economic hardship for his constituents as a main reason for his opposition to such laws.

Felder’s bill passed in the state Senate, and when the Assembly looked like it was on its way to passing a companion measure, Gov. Andrew Cuomo brokered a hasty deal that killed New York City’s ban and convened a task force to research the potential impact of various approaches to reducing plastic bag use as well as the consequences of doing nothing. In a press release at the time, Cuomo identified plastic bag waste as “a statewide issue that demands a statewide solution” and promised “New York will lead the way in developing a comprehensive statewide solution.”

Environmental advocates were disappointed, however, when the task force released its report in January. While it detailed the environmental destruction caused by the rampant use of disposable bags, the report failed to make any recommendations, instead simply listing the pros and cons of possible actions – including no action at all. New York City Councilman Brad Lander, who had sponsored the city’s plastic bag fee bill, blasted the task force report as “a total failure of leadership by Governor Cuomo,” and noted that the city had generated 8 billion bags, or 80,000 tons of solid waste, in the 11 months since the law was blocked. “With (the governor’s) failure to deliver a proposed solution,” Lander said in a statement, “every additional ton is on his hands.”

“Apparently we’re living in a different part of the world where there are no environmental problems. Isn’t that great?” – state Sen. Liz Krueger

Now, state Sen. Liz Krueger has put the issue back on the table. In February, Krueger and state Sen. Brad Hoylman, both Manhattan Democrats, introduced a law that would ban plastic bags across the state and put a 10-cent fee on paper bags, which carry their own hefty environmental cost. It’s a hybrid solution that mirrors a successful California statewide ban that took effect in 2016. New York shoppers who qualify for public assistance would be exempt. Eighty percent of the money raised would go to New York’s Environmental Protection Fund, with the remainder going to retailers to help defray their costs. (Only the state Legislature can direct proceeds of a bag fee to state use, as that is considered a tax; municipal bag laws, including New Castle’s, have directed the entire fee to retailers.)

“I introduced the bill in hopes that it would trigger some kind of action on this this year,” said Krueger, who added she was open to other solutions besides the one detailed in her legislation. “I don’t need my bill to become the law of the land. I need the state of New York to come up with a statewide answer, or for the state of New York to say we can’t (and) localities feel free to do what you feel is the right thing to do. The one part that is untenable to me is that we neither have a statewide plan nor allow the city of New York to go forward with what they believed was their solution.”

So far, though, Krueger’s legislation hasn’t gotten much attention. It was at first obscured by the annual state budget battle, and with the campaign season now heating up, it’s unclear whether lawmakers will be willing to test the popularity of the idea with voters.

Marcia Bystryn, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, served on the state’s plastic bag task force and supports a ban/fee hybrid. She said it’s unlikely a bag bill could advance unless Cuomo takes the lead. “This is really an issue for the governor,” she said. “My view is if the governor made a decision that he was going to do this, it could get done.”

A Cuomo representative told the Daily News in March that the governor saw plastic bags as a serious concern and is reviewing options, including a ban. Later in March, a coalition of more than 180 environmental groups from around the state wrote a letter to the governor urging him to act. His office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Opposition to the idea of any kind of limit on single-use bags remains entrenched among some state Senate members. State Sen. Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, said any attempt to put a price on bags would put an unsustainable burden on New Yorkers. “We’re already the most taxed city and state in the nation,” he said. “Could we do with less bags? I think the answer is yes, but I don’t think we’ve found a solution.”

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Fish swimming next to plastic bag
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Fish swimming next to plastic bag
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Fish swimming next to plastic bag
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Rich Carey / Shutterstock

The global movement to reduce the use of plastic bags has been steadily gaining ground over the past decade. The bags have become an icon of waste, consumption and pollution. Made from petroleum products and in use for an average of only 12 minutes, they will likely last for hundreds of years in landfills. When they do break down, or photodegrade, they end up entering the ecosystem in the form of tiny bits of plastic that now pervade all of the earth’s oceans, waterways and wildlife.

You’ll find steep fees or bans on bags in Rwanda, Ireland, South Africa, Latvia, Germany and elsewhere around the world where the risks they pose seem disproportionate to the convenience they afford residents. Krueger can’t hide the frustration she has toward her colleagues who don’t see the damage disposable bags are doing in New York. “Unfortunately they don’t seem to believe that we’ve got environmental problems to cope with,” she said. “Apparently we’re living in a different part of the world where there are no environmental problems. Isn’t that great?”

In New Castle, Wolk said one reason the town’s sustainability committee focused on banning plastic bags was that giving up disposable bags was a relatively easy environmental goal to achieve, compared to reducing car dependence or switching to clean energy. He and his colleagues spent months researching options for reducing the endless flow of single-use plastic and paper bags to consumers before crafting an ordinance that banned most plastic bags and imposed a 10-cent fee on paper ones. Then they spent yet more time educating voters, gathering petition signatures – 1,000 in the town of 17,000 – talking with elected officials and negotiating details with local business owners.

“It’s just overcoming people’s fear, and this feeling of ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’” – Steve Wolk, New Castle Sustainability Advisory Board chairman

The result? The town’s board voted 5-0 in favor of the ordinance, which went into effect in January 2017, making New Castle one of about a dozen towns and cities in New York that has passed some kind of an anti-bag law. Bringing your own bag has become a simple fact of life. “This thing is really easy,” Wolk said. “It’s just overcoming people’s fear, and this feeling of ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’” Wolk compared the bag ban to the smoking ban enacted in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, which precipitated dire predictions of economic doom for bars and restaurants before it went into effect, and subsequently proved enormously popular.

Opponents of bag bans in New York state, including Felder and Golden, emphasized the economic hardships that a bag fee would cause for lower-income people – despite the fact that many ordinances, including the one passed by the New York City Council, would exempt shoppers who receive public assistance.

Golden said New York is already losing population because of the tax burden. “There are more people migrating out of New York than migrating in,” he said. “It’s just another tax to drive people to say, ‘I’ve had it, it’s enough.’ After we’ve finished taxing plastic bags, what’s next?”

Bystryn said Golden’s argument exaggerates the burden bag fees put on taxpayers. “I agree with Marty on many things, and I’m sympathetic on the larger tax burden of New Yorkers,” she said. “But I doubt sincerely that a user fee on single-use bags is going to exacerbate the outmigration of New Yorkers.”

For some advocates with deep experience in low-income communities, objections from lawmakers like Felder and Golden ring hollow. Eddie Bautista is the executive director of New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, and he said he’s skeptical of the bag ban’s opponents who claim concern for people living in poverty. “The people that are loudest in opposing these things are almost always the same legislators that have no track record on the environment or caring for low-income communities of color,” Bautista said. “The thing that drives me crazy about these folks is that they keep using poor people without ever really caring about them or doing anything proactive for them.”

Krueger remained determined to keep pushing the issue. “We have to get out of the way of the counties and cities in our state who want to do this,” she said. “It is the right thing for the environment, it is the right thing to do for their local budget costs in solid waste and it is recognized all over the world as the right direction to go.”

For his part, Golden said that plastic bag waste is a minor issue compared with “bread-and-butter” concerns like high tax rates, job creation and fixing the MTA. As for any comparisons with California, Golden scoffed at the idea that the East Coast should emulate the West. “California is California,” he said. “It’s definitely different in New York.”

THE OPTIONS

Here are the possible actions the Plastic Bag Task Force said the state can take. It listed pros and cons for each, but no particular recommendation.

  1. Step up enforcement. Don’t change the New York State Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse and Recycling Law, but make more people aware it exists and boost its enforcement.
  2. Bring in the bag makers. Require bag manufacturers to fund the collection and recycling of single-use plastic bags.
  3. Per-bag fee. Institute a fee on each single-use plastic bag a customer receives.
  4. Per-use fee. Institute a flat fee for any customer who gets plastic bags, whether it’s one or seven.
  5. Paper and plastic bag fee. Institute a fee on both single-use plastic and paper bags.
  6. Ban it. Institute a full ban on single-use plastic bags.
  7. Ban and fee. Institute a ban on plastic bags, and a fee on paper bags and compostable plastic bags.
  8. Do nothing. Things are going fine as-is.
Sarah Goodyear
is a freelance journalist.
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