The day after Earth Day, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a bill to ban single-use plastic bags, declaring, "The blight of plastic bags takes a devastating toll on our streets, our water and our natural resources, and we need to take action to protect our environment."
It's a sentiment with which many agree, but some advocates and legislators who have previously tried to outlaw plastic bags in New York remain deeply skeptical about whether the governor's plan will actually be effective.
"It's a flawed solution," says Eric Goldstein, NYC Environment Director of the National Resources Defense Council, an influential environmental non-profit. "Experience elsewhere has shown that a simple ban on plastic bags leads to much greater use of paper bags—or thicker plastic bags—and doesn’t accomplish the primary objective of triggering a shift to reusables."
Goldstein is in favor of more "sophisticated" ways to discourage plastic bag use. California, for example, bans plastic bags and charges a fee for recycled paper bags. A year after that ban went into effect, an LA Times editorial crowed "the world didn't end." The other model is one that Chicago has adopted: Charging fees for using either plastic or paper bags, which one study said reduced usage by 42%.
City Council Member Brad Lander, a Democrat whose district includes Park Slope, was more blunt in his assessment, issuing a lengthy statement yesterday declaring, "If Governor Cuomo has actually gotten serious about reducing the billions of plastic bags that New Yorkers send to landfills each month, it would be great news. But this looks like election-year Earth Day politics."
Lander has slammed Cuomo over this issue before. In 2016, the New York City Council passed a plastic bag surcharge bill, which Lander championed, but Cuomo and the state legislature killed the legislation last year. The City Council's bill would have required a five cent fee per bag (applied to plastic or paper bags), which would have gone directly to store owners—it was explicitly not a tax, because the City Council lacks the authority to levy taxes without state approval. Cuomo maintained the fee would be an "unjustifiable and unnecessary" imposition on low income New Yorkers and a windfall for businesses owners, and launched his own "Plastic Bag Task Force" a month later. In response, Lander called Cuomo's justification for blocking the bill "the height of chutzpah."
This year, the state task force's report (PDF) included findings from various municipalities who have enacted methods to reduce single bag usage. Lander cited the cons listed for a single-use bag ban, like "No reduction in waste generation of single-use paper bags, which have their own environmental impacts" and "Does not incentivize reducing single-use paper bag use."
Goldstein sees another flaw in Cuomo's proposal: municipalities would no longer be able to pass their own more progressive bag laws. Long Beach and Suffolk County now both charge fees for carryout plastic or paper bag. "Those experiments ought to be given a chance to play out fully," Goldstein maintains.
In February, Democratic State Senators Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger introduced a bill proposing to ban plastic bans and charge a fee for other bags. Asked yesterday about Cuomo's bag plan, Hoylman hedged, saying, "It's a start, it’s better than nothing, and I’m hopeful that we can improve on it."
"Clearly we have to reduce plastic. I don’t think this is the most effective way to reduce plastic bags, but as with a lot of things that happen on Albany, sometimes you take what you can get," he added.
Cuomo's announcement came two days after his Democratic primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, released her clean energy and "climate justice" platform, which calls on New York to move to 100% renewable energy by 2050, and hours after Nixon told an environmental rally that Cuomo's commitment to environmental issues was "lacking." A spokesman for Cuomo told the NY Times that the timing of the bill's announcement was "governed by the facts and the process."
Cuomo's proposal is expected to meet resistance in the state Senate, which remains under Republican control. Brooklyn State Senator Simcha Felder, who was a fierce opponent of the City Council's five cent bag fee last year, has yet to comment on Cuomo's bag ban bill. Lander's statement noted that with Felder in "the catbird seat in the State Senate... there’s no reason to believe it will go anywhere."