Opinion: City Council members weigh pros and cons on plastic bag fee

boston cambridge plastic bag shopper plastic bags
On Earth Day, City Council members reflect on a law that would charge customers 10 cents for every plastic bag used across the city.
Credit: Nicolaus Czarnecki, Metro

In March, the City Council revived a bill aimed squarely at the 300 to 600 plastic bags each New Yorker is estimated to use in a year.

The idea is to charge ten cents for every non-reusable plastic or paper bag used around in grocery stores, bodegas and other businesses across the city.

And while most recognize the environmental significance that the 100,000 tons of plastic bags that end up in landfills ever year, some leaders are worried about the economic impact the law may have on working-class New Yorkers.

For Earth Day, Metro invited members of the City Council on both sides of the issue to reflect on the proposed law.

The views below do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publication.

Plastic bag bill just another tax

eric ulrich
Councilman Eric Ulrich
Credit: NYC Council

The goal is eco-friendly and commendable: curb the number of plastic bags going into landfills. But the result will have you paying more green at the register. Last month, a bill was introduced in the City Council which, if passed, would charge a 10-cent fee for each plastic and paper bag carried out at supermarkets, bodegas, street vendors selling fruit, vegetables and general merchandise and retail stores including clothing, drug and department stores. The proposed bill already has the support of 21 council members. Needless to say, I am not one of them.

New Yorkers already shoulder the highest tax burden in the country. In fact, a recent study concluded that when it comes to the taxes state and local governments collect from residents, New York ranks No. 1. Combine this dubious distinction with the high cost of living and it’s no wonder the middle class is shrinking and leaving for other states.

Plainly speaking, the plastic bag fee is just another back door tax that I cannot, in good conscience, support. Small businesses already have to comply with enough bureaucratic red-tape regulations and many of my constituents already pay enough in high taxes, utilities, and skyrocketing water and sewer rates. Enacting additional taxes, fines and fees simply doesn’t make any sense.

The proposed bill, in its current form, unfairly exempts SNAP recipients from the fee, but makes no such accommodation for middle and working class families who are not on public assistance, but who are also struggling to makes ends meet. If passed as is, the inequality gap in our city will become even more apparent with the brunt of this bill being felt by senior citizens and the working poor. This is not right.

The Council has always been a champion of the middle and working class. Over the years, we’ve passed numerous bills and laws which have significantly improved the quality of life for residents throughout the five boroughs. I am hoping that we can refocus our time and energy on policies that create jobs, expand opportunities and help New Yorkers keep more of their hard earned money. I believe there is a way to rid ourselves of plastic bags in the future but I am not convinced that we need to nickel and dime (literally) people in the process.

ERIC ULRICH, New York City Member (D-32, Queens)

NYC should take lead in plastic bag fight

As New York City transitions into spring, take a moment to observe our public green space come to life. In addition to the budding blooms in our parks, playgrounds, and sidewalks, you may notice another, less picturesque element to New York’s iconic scenery — plastic bags.

brad lander
Councilman Brad Lander
Credit: NYC Council
Margaret Chin
Councilwoman Margaret Chin
Credit: NYC Council

They’re everywhere — blowing in the wind, caught in trees and clogging up storm drains just in time for April showers.

We all know that plastic bags come at a steep environmental price. Non-biodegradable and difficult to recycle, plastic bags can take centuries to break down. Instead, they end up in our city’s waste stream, exacerbating flooding and sewage discharges into our waterways. As the weather warms up, it’s worth noting that used plastic bags are the 4th most commonly found type of litter on U.S. beaches.

Plastic bags also cost the public money. As a city, we use a whopping 5.2 billion carryout bags per year (there are only 8.4 million of us!), the vast majority of which are not recycled. New York City pays $10 million in taxpayer dollars each year to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills, where they remain indefinitely until blown back on the wind into our neighborhoods.

The legislation that we have introduced in the City Council would require retail and grocery stores to charge at 10 cents each for single-use bags (both plastic and paper), in order to provide some extra incentive for customers to bring their own reusable ones. The legislation is thoughtfully designed to avoid logistical burdens on consumers (it’s not a “ban”), and the retailers get to keep any fees that are collected (it’s not a “tax”). The bill exempts food banks, soup kitchens, and food stamp transactions for New Yorkers in need (though we hope they’ll also bring reusable bags).

We’re already giving away thousands of free, reusable bags – and we pledge to keep doing so. Our goal is not for people to pay anything extra. It is for people to bring their own bags.

Other cities around the country (including Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C) have instituted similar laws, and seen plastic bag use drop by as much as 90 percent.

As a city that prides itself as a leader and innovator in environmental protection, there’s no reason New York should be left behind. We should take what we’ve learned in other cities and implement a plan that will work here. It starts with this bill.

BRAD LANDER, New York City Member (D-39, Brooklyn)
MARGARET CHIN, New York City Council Member (D-1, Manhattan)


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