Lawmakers Propose Mandatory Fee for Plastic Bags in New York City

An art piece representing plastic bag usage.

An art piece representing plastic bag usage, displayed at today’s press conference.

City Councilmembers and advocates announced a plan today to slap a 10 cent charge on all plastic and paper carry-out bags at grocery and retail stores across New York City.

Customers would be required to bring their own bags or pay the fee, which stores would get to pocket, according to the proposed legislation, unveiled this afternoon at City Hall.

The legislation, which will be formally introduced at a Council meeting Thursday, is aimed at reigning in “wasteful” plastic bag use in the city, where it’s not uncommon for grocery stores to double-bag single quarts of milk.

“It is time for New york to substantially reduce our plastic bag waste!” said Councilman Brad Lander, who announced the plan on the steps of City Hall, where supporters waved sings reading “Only vampires should be this thin and last hundreds of years!” and “Plastic bags are demons and demons stink.”

The 30-plus advocates also brought with them a giant art piece, which they splayed out on the steps, representing wasted plastic bags.

According to the bill’s proponents, New Yorkers use approximately 5.2 billion plastic bags per year–the vast majority of which are not recycled. The city also spends an estimated $10 million a year to transport those 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills each year, they said.

Mayor Bloomberg had previously proposed a similar piece of legislation that would have imposed a 6 cent tax on retailers distributing plastic bags–a policy proposal that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn did not support. But Mr. Lander made a clear distinction today between the two pieces of legislation.

“What the mayor was actually proposing was a tax,” he said. “There are some legal questions there about whether the city actually has the power to do that or whether that takes action in Albany.”

The new proposed piece of legislation would not require this oversight from the State Legislature, but would provide the same environmentally-positive impact, Mr. Lander explained.

The legislation would also force the city to begin widespread distribution of free, reusable bags before the fees go into effect in what Mr. Lander described as a “public-private partnership.”

“There are obviously a lot of businesses that either for marketing purposes or because they share the environmental goals, [might] be willing to help provide some of the resources or the bags themselves,” he said.

The bill also specifies that grocery and retail stores will be precluded from charging the fee until people are given the chance to take advantage of the citywide bag giveaways.

“We’re going to target the giveaway in lower-income neighborhoods. I think we’d actually like to do a meaningful amount of that through the grocery stores,” Mr. Lander explained.

Restaurants would be exempt from the rule and stores that break the rules twice would be slapped with $250 fines.

A spokesman for Ms. Quinn, whose support is likely necessary for the bills to pass, declined to say whether or not she supports the bills.

A spokesman for the mayor said the office is reviewing the legislation.

Plastic bags are restricted in many cities across the country, including in San Fransisco and Washington, D.C.

Update (2:29 p.m.): At least one group is not happy about the proposal. The American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents bag manufacturers, issued a statement this afternoon calling the proponents “misinformed” and arguing that Americana-made plastic bags are 100-percent recyclable anyway.

“New York City residents already pay among the highest taxes in the nation. A 10-cent per bag tax would be a detriment to hardworking families and businesses trying to make ends meet,” said the group’s chair, Mark Daniels. “The proponents of this bill are misinformed and largely rely on science that has been hijacked by environmental activists. A grocery bag tax pushes shoppers toward less sustainable options, like reusable bags, which cannot be recycled, are made from foreign oil and imported at a rate of 500 million annually.”

“If lawmakers are interested in protecting the environment, they should consider the facts and concentrate on meaningful legislation to boost proper reuse and disposal of grocery bags,” he said.