It’s in the bag: Surcharge to start in February

BY MICHAEL OSSORGUINE | A bill requiring grocery stores, delis and bodegas to charge customers a minimum 5-cent fee for using disposable plastic and paper bags passed the City Council for the second time on Tuesday.

The measure already passed the Council in May by a tight 28-to-20 vote. However, due to a threat from the state Legislature to pass a bill banning cities from imposing such fees, amendments were made to give the law a later effective date of Feb. 15, 2017. This would give businesses more time to prepare for the law’s implementation.

These amendments forced the bill back to City Council for another vote. Following the City Council Sanitation Committee’s approval on Monday, the full Council again passed the bill on Tuesday in a 38-to-11 vote. The bill’s journey has been long and arduous, and has opposition from various interest groups since 2014.

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Fairway is getting with the program, offering shoppers free tote bags with a $5 purchase.

“People say they support fighting global warming, and they want to elect someone that’ll do something about it — but they have a problem with carrying a reusable bag in their coat pocket,” said former Congressmember Peter Kostmayer, C.E.O. of the Citizens Committee of New York.

Among the bill’s sponsors, named were Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Rosie Mendez, the latter who earlier had been an opponent, but came around to the idea.

Disposable bags will now have a mandatory “surcharge” attached starting next February.

The law’s goal is to limit the use of disposable bags and replace them with reusable cloth or mesh tote bags. Data from other municipalities that have enacted similar legislation show that the fee will cause a “drastic reduction” of the use of plastic bags.

Supporters say the bag initiative will help lower the consumption of oil — from which plastic bags are made — and save taxpayer money spent on cleaning up the “urban tumbleweed” littering the city’s streets, rivers and tree branches.

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Thanks a lot, American Progressive Bag Alliance.

But opponents counter that the fee is a “regressive tax” that will hurt low-income consumers who use the bags for multiple purposes, as well as harm the domestic plastics industry.

Among those worried about the fee’s burden on low-income families is The Black Institute, a Wall St.-area think tank focused on concerns of the U.S. black community.

“It is outrageous that this tax is not going toward further initiatives to benefit our environment or create jobs, but rather right into the pockets of private businesses,” said Bertha Lewis, the institute’s president and founder. “We need to go back to the drawing board and create a plan that engages communities about their environment.”

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Smiley faces don’t make the tons of litter caused by plastic bags go away.

The opposition is incorrect in calling it a government tax, however. Rather, it is a required fee that goes directly to the merchants.

Councilmember Chin responded to the bill’s criticism in May.

“The amended bill…is the result of months of discussions with my Council colleagues about how best to balance our need to reduce the billions of single-use bags discarded every year with our desire not to unfairly burden low-income New Yorkers,” she said back then.

“Plastic bags wreak havoc on our storm-drain systems and our waterways,” added attorney Jennie Romer, who was involved in writing the legislation. Her argument is seconded by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“We’re concerned with the physical stewardship of our city,” Kostmayer said, noting that more than 9 billion disposable plastic bags are used in New York City every year.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance spent $3 million lobbying in California to delay an effective ban there on all plastic carryout bags. The effort may have paid off, as the ban was delayed, and awaits another referendum vote. The A.P.B.A. had been actively attempting to delay the New York measure, as well.

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Hopefully, we’ll be seeing less of this after the new bag surcharge goes into effect in February.

On the Web site bagthetaxnyc.com, key opposition talking points are listed, disputing the idea that all plastic bags are nonrecyclable and single-use, charging that low-income residents will have to pay more for their groceries and stating that “plastic bags comprise less than 2 percent of the New York City waste stream.”

However, Romer countered, “It’s an avoidable fee,” saying that low-income families can easily bring reusable bags, including some that are handed out for free in city-sponsored giveaways.

According to Romer, the City Council Sanitation Committee recently authorized the giveaway of around 200,000 reusable bags as the law’s implementation date approaches. The Citizens Committee is also planning more tote-bag giveaways.

The bill reportedly lacked enough support when the fee was set at 10 cents per bag. In a compromise, the surcharge was shaved to 5 cents to secure majority support in the City Council. In addition, liquor stores and delivery orders are not subject to the mandate. Families that are in the federal SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) or WIC (supplemental food for women, infants and children) programs are also exempt.

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