By Matthew Friedman
The New York City Council is considering a bill that would impose a 10-cent tax on all plastic bags used by customers at grocery stores and other shops around the city. The bill was introduced early in 2014 by City Councilman Brad Lander from Brooklyn and has been sponsored by many, including Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side.
The goal of the bill is to reduce the consumption of carryout bags through what is referred to as “a fee of not less than ten cents for each carryout bag provided to any person.” The tax would be collected by the store, but instead of going to the government as with a normal sales tax, the individual establishments would get to keep the money.
Linda, a manager at Lenny’s, a bagel shop at 98th Street and Broadway, said: “It’s a good idea. If people want coffee, they put in a paper bag inside a plastic bag inside a paper bag. It’s ridiculous. [Through the bill] we probably will get some money, and people will bring their own bags.” Nima, an employee at The Health Nuts, a health food store on Broadway between 98th and 99th street, thought that the bill could be modestly successful: “Always a good idea, but I don’t think it would make that much [money]”.
Some stores have already made a change over to from single-use plastic bags to recyclable paper ones. Trader Joe’s at 72nd Street and Broadway has been using thick brown bags for years alongside the usual plastic ones. Westside Market also uses a combination of paper and plastic bags. Most small businesses, however, still find it cheaper to use the customary plastic bag. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks the actions of state governments across the country, New York state passed a law in 2008 which required stores to have signs asking customers to return plastic bags for recycling. They must also provide a location for these bags to be recycled.
California was the first state to put in place a ban which hopefully aid in limiting plastic bag waste and help the environment. The bill, which will go into effect on July 1st, prevents large stores from distributing single-use plastic bags and by 2016 will begin to limit a wider variety of stores, including convenience stores.
The problem of bagging items from stores is not just an American one. The European Union spent the fall dealing with its own legislation regarding the ban on lightweight plastic bags. An article in The Guardian published in November put the number of bags used per year per person in Europe at 191, while according to the European Commission, the lawmaking body of the EU, that number is 198. Either way, environmentalists and politicians alike agree that this number needs to be reduced. EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik was quoted on their website:
We’re taking action to solve a very serious and highly visible environmental problem.
Every year, more than 8 billion plastic bags end up as litter in Europe, causing enormous environmental damage. Some Member States have already achieved great results in terms of reducing their use of plastic bags. If others followed suit we could reduce today’s overall consumption in the European Union by as much as 80%.
The Guardian article refers to a proposal ratified in November where “Measures such as bag taxes could be considered as equivalent” can be easily put in place by EU member states.
We spoke with several Upper West Siders who supported measures to reduce the use of plastic bags, although they had differing opinions about how to do that and where the tax proceeds should be spent.
“I think that’s a good idea. More people get bags from us than bring their own, and we only have plastic,” said John, a stockperson at West Side Stationers on 99th street and Broadway. At the same store, Cisco, a cashier said: “We need to get better plastic bags that people can reuse.”
One woman, Elizabeth, seemed to be a bit hesitant about the idea: “Do I think it will be helpful, maybe, but I already have a reusable bag.”
A market is developing, mostly online, for low cost bags made from materials that are less harmful to the environment. Upper West Sider Scott, shopping in a Duane Reade at 102nd Street and Broadway, thought that the money generated by the tax should not necessarily be going into the pocket of businesses: “The bill is probably a good idea. If it were invested in better paper bags, though, that would be a very good thing. The ones down at Trader Joe’s break so easily. Someone needs to build a better paper bag.”
Helen Rosenthal’s office did not respond to requests for an interview about why she’s supporting the bill.
Opponents of the bill argue that the tax will put too much of a burden on lower-income families and that New Yorkers don’t hold the issue very highly. Novolex, a major producer of plastic products, has launched a site called bagtheban.com, which asserts that: “A bag tax increases costs of daily necessities and disproportionally burdens those who can least afford it. Residents of Park Slope may be able to afford a bag tax, but those who live in some of the neediest communities will have trouble making ends meet.” The website also claims that roughly 82% of New Yorkers reuse their bags.
The bill is with the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management in the City Council and there is not yet a date for a vote. You can follow its progress here.