Last month, the New York City Council voted enact a five cent tax on plastic bags, identifying them as an environmental hazard that should be phased out in favor of reusable alternatives. The fee, which could reduce citywide plastic bag use by up to 60 percent, was slated to go into effect in October, but now the Times reports that the state Assembly has pushed that back to February. At the same time, Democratic Senator Simcha Felder has introduced a bill that would outlaw plastic bag fees statewide.
Opponents of the bag fee frame it as a regressive tax on the poor. In an interview with ABC, Felder spoke of being "disgusted" at the mention of any bag tax law. "This tax placed an undue financial burden on countless low and middle-income residents who already struggle," the Senator said.
But that notion—that the working class depends on plastic bags in order to get by—is being called out as bullshit by city and state lawmakers. "I have five NYCHA developments in my district, and I challenge [the narrative] that communities of color simply can't remember to bring bags when they go shopping," Council Member Laurie Cumbo said in May before the vote to enact a bag tax.
State Senator Liz Kreuger also criticized those who deploy populism as a rationale for unregulated bag use. "Plastic pollution hurts low-income communities the most—that's why it's particularly disturbing that the bag industry continues to use low-income people as human shields to prevent any effective action," Kreuger said Wednesday. "It's sad that the New York State Senate is such an easy mark for an industry that couldn't care less about the well-being of our constituents."
Kreuger went on to stress that the bag fee that the City Council passed last month—which allows businesses to keep each five cent fee but threatens a $250 fine for non-compliance—is about improving day-to-day city life, not raising money.
"Nobody has to pay the fee, and despite offensive suggestions to the contrary from the bag lobby and their supporters, low-income New Yorkers are just as capable as anyone else of saying no to plastic bags or bringing a reusable bag. Far from paying a price, low-income communities will see an immediate benefit from the City law, with less litter and less garbage truck traffic in their neighborhoods."
Nationwide, the U.S. throws away 100 billion plastic bags each year, and New York City accounts for roughly ten percent of that waste. Other large cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle have enacted plastic bag taxes and seen a dramatic drop in their use. Their citizens have adopted reusable bags. The only ones hurting are the plastic bag manufacturers.
Still, Felder, who caucuses with Republicans in Albany, is characterizing the fee as an unfair tax. “New Yorkers do not like being manipulated, they do not like being aggravated and they do not need government to irritate them” the Senator told the Wall Street Journal.
New York City spends over $12 million in public funds to haul away 100,000 tons of plastic bags each year, according to Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia. Surely some of that money could repay the back-breaking hardship of a plastic bag fee.