Last month, co-sponsors of a bill to impose a 10 cent fee on plastic bags held a rally on the steps of City Hall, calling for the bill to be passed by Earth Day. Earth Day is tomorrow, and it still remains to be seen whether the bill will pass a City Council vote, and whether de Blasio will sign it.
So what the hell is the hold up? Naturally there remains a contingent of opposition committed to ignoring several crucial facts about the bill. Bag the Tax, a coalition comprised primarily of unions, offers a list of citation-less "facts" regarding the fee. (Not to be confused with a tax, which it's not.) "Fact," the website says. "Unlike San Francisco and Washington, D.C., New York City is a walking city. This tax may pass muster in some wealthier neighborhoods but not with the working class of the City." No further explanation is given.
Last week, we received a press release from Bag the Tax touting the Bronx Christian Fellowship's Reverend Que English as the latest Bag the Tax supporter. "The struggle to keep vulnerable families, seniors and immigrants from slipping below the poverty line is won or lost in small amounts, 5 or 10 cents at a time," the release read. "I ask that you chart a different course, and pursue legislation that brings sweeping environmental progress in a progressive way.”
I reached out to the spokesperson, hoping an anti-fee representative could clarify how the surcharge would impact the poor when WIC and SNAP recipients are specifically exempt. I was also curious about what the mythical "progressive way" might entail.
Instead, I was sent a statement from Reginald Bowman, president of the City Wide Council of Presidents at NYCHA, who repeated that the fee would disproportionately impact the city's poor, despite the exemptions. What's more, he said, "New Yorkers’ shopping habits are not the problem."
"The problem is that for years, the City’s recycling infrastructure has lagged behind that of other large cities. Our efforts should be focused on investing in improving that performance - not raising prices at the checkout counter." Bowman did not include any further information on which cities offer "superior recycling infrastructure." Repeated attempts to speak to him on the phone were met with silence.
On Wednesday, Mayor de Blasio will release his first update on PlaNYC, an ambitious Bloomberg-era initiative meant to combat New York City’s long-term environmental challenges. Whether the fee is included in the update—a quadrennial event that addresses everything from the city's expected population boom to its aging infrastructure—will reveal a lot in terms of whether the bill will be passed any time soon.
Though this particular bill was only introduced in 2013, the idea of charging for bags has been under consideration for some time—in 2008, Bloomberg pitched the idea of a plastic bag tax, though it was ultimately struck down by the City Council. D.C. imposed a five cent bag fee in 2009, and last August, California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. Those places have seen use of plastic bags plummet by 60 percent and 95 percent, respectively. Moreover, recipients of WIC and SNAP would be exempt from the charge, undermining the argument that the fee would unfairly burden the city's poor.
In November, the City Council heard a variety of compelling testimonies in favor of a 10 cent fee on plastic bags—the source of an enormous amount of waste produced around the city. Around 9.4 billion such bags entangle themselves in trees and catch basins each year, marring the coastline and causing a headache for the Department of Sanitation, which, despite extensive research, has found no practicable means of recycling them.
Additionally, the city pays roughly $12.5 million in public funds to haul away 100,000 tons of plastic bags each year, Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia said at the hearing. Representatives from D.C. present at the meeting also noted that 83 percent of residents polled expressed that they either supported, or at least were not bothered by, the bag fee.
Councilman Brad Lander, who co-sponsored the bill along with Councilwoman Margaret Chin, told us last week that residents living in bag-fee cities were quick to adopt the habit of bringing their own bags with them.
"Low-income people are just as able as middle-income or upper-income people to remember to bring a reusable bag," he said. "All of us are well-reminded by a bag fee, and that's why it works. The beautiful thing about the plastic bag fee is that no one has to pay it. "
Lander said he's hopeful that the bag bill will be included in de Blasio's PlaNYC update.
"I'm optimistic it will speak to the need to reduce solid waste, which remains a big issue in New York City," Lander said of the update. "We've spent hundreds of millions of dollars carting solid waste to landfills around the country. I'm hopeful that we will be able to work together to resolve the problem of plastic bags.