New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia knows trash.
So it’s not surprising that she has a lot to say about the nuisance — and dangers — that plastic shopping bags can pose to the city.
During a City Council hearing on November 19, though she stopped short of giving a full-throated endorsement of a new bill to impose a 10-cent fee for single-use shopping bags, Garcia said that the city is certainly sick of dealing with the plastic vessels that litter our streets, choke our storm drains, and get stuck in our trees. “They’re nearly impossible to get out of trees,” she told the council during the hearing. Worse yet, they end up in the city’s rivers, she added, “posing a threat to marine animals that confuse them with a food source.”
Garcia said she welcomed the opportunity to discuss ways for New York City to reduce its use of plastic bags, but would not go so far as to give the proposal, which currently has 20 co-sponsors, her outright support. She said she preferred to hear from the city’s stakeholders about what they thought of a potential fee first.
Councilman Steven Matteo said he wasn’t happy with the prospect of shopping bags carrying a price tag. He said that seniors in Staten Island, which he represents, would be forced to pay more for their groceries, and that many of his constituents would just do more of their shopping in New Jersey.
Matteo called for a stronger push on recycling instead of the bag fee, asking Garcia, “Do you think there’s a better way?”
“I don’t have a way to recycle plastic bags at this point in time,” Garcia responded. “We think there are many ways to do this…this [has worked] in other parts of the country….The real driver here is not to charge people, but to change behavior.”
As of October, the state of California has banned single-use plastic bags entirely. Baltimore’s city council issued a ban on the bags only this week, although the city’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, may veto it. A 2002 bag fee in Ireland resulted in a 90 percent reduction in the use of plastic bags.
Plastic bags make up only 2.3 percent of waste in New York City, according to the commissioner. But as anyone who’s seen the 1999 film American Beauty knows, the lightweight sacks tend to float pretentiously in the wind — although detractors say they cease to be beautiful once they end up dotting the trees that line the city’s streets.
Councilman Brad Lander, who proposed the bill, argued that in addition to contributing to the city’s overall litter issue, plastic bags tend to wind up in recycling facilities, where they wrap around the city’s high-end sorting equipment, which can create snags and jams.
“Plastic bags are meant to be used for a short time,” he says. “Unfortunately, their effects are long-lasting.”
Under the bill he’s proposed, customers would pay 10 cents for both paper and plastic bags at the checkout line. Though the target of the bill is plastic bags, paper was included to prevent customers from simply asking for that alternative. The rule would likely mostly be self-enforcing, although it includes a scheme of fines. First-time violators would receive a warning and an opportunity to start charging for plastic bags before they got any fine. Fines for repeat offenders would range from $250 to $500.
The bill also includes exceptions for restaurants, food banks, and customers on food stamps.
Bertha Lewis, founder of the Black American Leadership Coalition, or BLAC, said at the hearing that bag-fee advocates ignored the bill’s effect on poor people. BLAC is receiving money “to expand educational programs” from the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group that has recently lobbied against bag laws in Dallas and Illinois.
Jennie Romer, a national expert on plastic-bag laws who helped write the New York bill, tells the Voice that the plastic industry has sued “almost every city in California that [adopted] an ordinance” banning the bags. She says she expects New York to face a lawsuit if the measure is enacted.
Romer’s not kidding — the plastic-bag industry has gone to great lengths to fight some efforts to curb the use of its products.
When San Francisco’s Commission on the Environment first proposed a 17-cent tax on single-use paper and plastic bags in 2005, industry groups came together and spent $700,000 on a PR campaign opposing the bill.
Meanwhile, then-California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a state bill into law
called the “Plastic Bag and Litter Reduction Act,” which actually made it illegal for cities to impose local fees on plastic bags. That led San Francisco to ban traditional bags outright at the city’s large grocery stores, making only compostable plastic, recyclable paper, or reusable checkout bags available.
Also in California, Oakland and Fairfax tried to ban plastic bags in 2007. They were stopped in court by the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling, a group that included at least seven major plastic manufacturers. The coalition demanded that the cities develop pricey environmental impact reports to prove that the ban would not actually increase pollution from other kinds of bag waste.
In 2011, plastic-bag manufacturer Hilex Poly sued reusable-bag company ChicoBag for exaggerating the environmental effects of single-use plastic bags.
When he’s not dealing with litigation, ChicoBag’s president often dresses up as a BagMonster.
The companies eventually settled out of court.
Short-lived plans in 2012 for a bag ban in Toronto, Canada, were reversed after two industry groups — one representing convenience stores, another representing plastics — announced plans to sue the city.
That same year, San Francisco expanded its plastic-bag ban to include every retailer in the city and add a 10-cent charge to any other (paper or decomposable) bag given at a cash register.
The city got slapped with a lawsuit by the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, a group that included at least four employees of plastic companies, according to a similar 2009 lawsuit against the city of Palo Alto. San Francisco fought Save the Plastic Bag’s lawsuit in court and won in 2013.