NEW YORK—New Yorkers may have to pay 10 cents for every paper and plastic bag if a bill introduced in the City Council on Wednesday is passed.
A small fee on the ubiquitously free bags has proven effective in reducing their use elsewhere. Lawmakers and advocates now want to mandate the fee in New York City, where some 5.2 billion plastic bags are used every year.
The city is paying at least $10 million annually to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills in other states. The bags are also known to jam expensive recycling machinery and contaminate the waste stream, driving up costs. Being light and aerodynamic, they are also prone to be picked up by the wind, getting stuck in trees, clogging storm drains, and littering the beaches.
“We see the plastic bags in the water. We see them on our beaches,” Matt Gove, a surfer and member of the Surf Rider Coalition, said outside City Hall on Wednesday. “They’re a blight to our beautiful city and our beautiful beaches. They’re also swallowed by marine life. They choke, they die.”
Businesses will get to keep the 10 cent fee, with no additional reporting requirements. Restaurants, street vendors selling prepared food, and liquor and wine stores would not have to charge the fee.
The law would be enforced by the Department of Consumer Affairs, which already inspects stores for other reasons. Businesses will receive a warning on first violation, a $250 fee for the second violation, and $500 fees for subsequent violations.
The law proposed in New York City is a hybrid of laws adopted in other parts of the country. A ban on plastic bags combined with a 10-cent charge on paper bags in Los Angeles County resulted in a 95 percent reduction in plastic bag use. In San Jose, a similar law led to a reduction of plastic bag litter in the storm drain system, creeks and rivers, and city streets and neighborhoods.
New York City’s bill, if enacted, is not a ban on plastic bags and would still allow stores to sell bags at a 10-cent charge. Council member Brad Lander, the lead sponsor of the bill, said that banning bags outright might not work given the peculiarities of life in the big city.
“Partly that is recognizing some of uniqueness of New York City,” Lander said. “There is that time when you’re not intending to go to the grocery store so you don’t bring the bag with you. It might be raining. You might be on your bicycle.”
Lander said the fee would be raised on both plastic and paper bags because when similar laws were enacted in other cities with no fee on paper bags, people just switched to paper.
“The small-priced incentive to bring reusable bags works in city after city if you apply it to all bags,” Lander said. “Plastic is worse than paper, but the best is if people will bring reusable bags and not add to the waste stream at all.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday called plastic bags “a problem” but stopped short of endorsing the bill. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito says she needs to review it. Public Advocate Letitia James spoke in support at the Wednesday press conference.
Opponents of the bill argue that plastic bags make up only a small fraction of all litter and are recyclable and reusable. They also say that plastic bag bans can hurt businesses and propose that recycling is the better solution.
One study conducted by the United Kingdom Environmental Agency showed that a cotton reusable bag must be used 131 times before its contribution to climate change is lower than that of a plastic bag used only once.
Plastic bag production is a big industry in the United States, employing more than 30,000 people across the country, including 1,800 people in New York, according to the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a group of plastic bag manufacturers.
Plastic bags also make up only 0.6 percent of all litter, according to a 2009 National Litter Survey conducted by Environmental Resources Planning, LLC., a firm that focuses on litter-related research and studies.
“They use the term incentive, I use the term punishment. I think we should be trying to look at ways to let people keep more of their hard-earned money rather than less,” said Council member Rory Lancman.
“If plastic bags are so hazardous then we should consider banning them outright and using the savings to the city from transporting bags to our landfill to provide people with free reusable bags.”