News & Politics

Albany Controls The Fate Of NYC’s Plastic Bags Yet Again

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A years-long battle over whether to charge New York City residents five cents for plastic grocery bags has been left in the hands of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is expected to decide today whether it lives or dies.

The legislation to instate the fee has been lurching through various chambers of government for several years now, subjected to repeated onslaughts of misinformation from elected officials either unable to unwilling to accept its simplicity: That’s it’s another “tax,” (it’s a fee); that it will disproportionately affect the poor (SNAP recipients are exempt); that the bags can be recycled (no).

Part of what makes the city’s proposed bag fee so compelling is its incredible straightforwardness: Rather than bodega proprietors thoughtlessly double bagging every pack of Starburst or solitary Slim Jim, customers would first be asked whether they need a plastic bag at all. Those who say “yes” will be charged five cents for the bag, unless they’re among the 1.8 million New Yorkers who receive food stamps. Everyone else can either forgo the plastic or bring their own bag(s). Policy is often steeped in nuance, but this one is pretty simple. I bet even Donald Trump could grasp it, with enough Adderall and maybe some head restraints.

The reason for the proposal is just as simple. New Yorkers throw away 10 billion of the bags each year, which promptly ensnare themselves in sewers, rise into plastic mountains in landfills, and drift unabated around waterways. The city spends $12.5 million annually disposing of the 91,000 tons of tossed-away bags over the course of 7,000 truck trips. And contrary to what studies financed by a trade group that represents the plastics industry claim, they’re not recyclable.

In May, it looked as though the law would finally move forward after the City Council narrowly voted in its favor. Last month, though, State Senator Simcha Felder managed to snarl progress once again, introducing yet another piece of legislation to stall the fee indefinitely. Earlier this week, the New York State Assembly voted 122-15 in favor of putting it on ice for a year. Now it comes down to Governor Cuomo, who is still weighing whether to sign it. It is, he said during a news conference this week in Schenectady, “complicated.”

“There are real environmental concerns, but there are also economic concerns,” he said. “There are a lot of complicated issues. We’re going through it and we’ll have a decision soon.”

Asked to elaborate on what the governor felt was complicated about the bag bill, a spokesperson for Cuomo responded with an audio recording of the press conference.

In an interview with the Voice, Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who opposes the fee, said that charging for bags will not only disrupt the lives of his constituents, who often shop for families of 10 or more, but also unduly burdens store proprietors tasked with enforcing it. Sometimes, he said, he buys so many groceries he’s asked if he’d prefer a box.

“I think you’ll agree that using paper, using boxes, is not exactly the best thing to for the environment for multiple reasons,” he said. I pointed out that cardboard boxes are recyclable, and that plastic bags are not, at which point he pivoted to the health concerns associated with unwashed reusable bags. In states that employ bag fees, he said, people have been hospitalized thanks to E. coli contamination from unwashed reuseable bags.

In fact, washing those bags reduces 99.9 percent of bacteria, just as one might wash their hands or their clothes. Are people with large families incapable of laundering reusable bags? I asked Hikind whether anyone from the plastic bag lobby had contributed to his campaign.

“I’m proud to say no one has contributed, any of these entities, to my campaign. How do you like that? I don’t even know who the people are,” Hikind responded. “ So it has nothing to do with money. I don’t even know who the people are who lobbied for the plastic. I have no clue. If you ask me, who are the lobbyists, I have no idea! No one ever came to me.”

Asked why he objected to such a relatively anodyne measure that would do so much to help the current environmental crisis we’re facing, Hikind responded, “I fail to understand people like yourself who are so — and I say this with complete respect — who are so desperate to make this happen, even if they have to shove it down everyone’s throats.”

A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who also opposed the fee, declined an interview, and sent the Voice following statement:

We all share the same goal of reducing plastic waste and improving our environment. As drafted, there were a number of issues with the local law that made State action necessary. First, it has the potential to negatively impact working poor households and senior citizens disproportionately. It also mandates that stores could charge any amount for carryout bags, starting at five cents. The fee would go directly to store owners and not to targeted environmental programs as mandated in many other programs around the country.

A spokesperson for City Councilman Brad Lander, who cosponsored the bill for the fee, points out that the “minimum five cent” phrasing is consistent with language in other states, like California, where there is no evidence that any retailers have charged more than the minimum. She added that supporters of the bill have offered repeatedly to change the phrasing to cap the fee at five cents.

We’ll update this post once Governor Cuomo makes his decision. It’s currently 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon.

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