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New York City Council plans plastic-bag crackdown

By: Tessa Berenson
CRAIN'S NEW YORK BUSINESS

June 12, 2013

The plastic-bag police are back.

Stymied five years ago in their attempt to tax the plastic bags that most city shoppers rely on, environmentalists will try again to get New Yorkers to employ reusable ones.

City Councilman Brad Lander is leading the cause and plans to introduce legislation to reduce plastic bag use. The Brooklyn Democrat said he is considering taxes, fees or bans on bags.

Through his coordination with environmental advocacy groups and business associations he hopes to find a solution to plastic bag waste that will benefit the environment, businesses and shoppers.

In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to impose a tax of six cents per plastic bag, but the measure failed amid opposition from consumers and retailers. Instead, New York passed a law requiring medium-sized chain businesses and stores over 5,000 square feet to recycle plastic bags returned by consumers.

Lander believes more aggressive measures need to be taken. "The evidence is in, and even with the [2008 law] New Yorkers continue to use more than 1 billion plastic bags a year," he said. "The bags continue to wind up in our waste stream, in our trees, in our recycling system, and in our storm drains."

Though Bloomberg's tax was rejected, Mr. Lander thinks his new legislation will fare better. Since 2008, there have been numerous successful efforts to curb plastic bag use around the country. Taxes and bans have been instated in many cities and counties, with dramatic results. In 2010 Washington, D.C., implemented a tax of five cents per bag, helping to reduce plastic bag use by more than 50 percent. In 2012, San Francisco passed a sweeping ban forbidding stores and restaurants from handing out plastic bags to customers.

"There's a lot more data now about what works and I think we can really learn by what's been done effectively around the country," Lander said.

The city could not collect a bag tax without approval from the state Legislature, but the councilman is pondering an end run around Albany. He said places such as Los Angeles County require that stores charge for plastic bags rather than tax them, circumventing the need for state approval. If retailers were compelled to charge for plastic bags and not pass the money on to the city, Albany's permission would not be required, according to Lander.

Opposition to a tax on plastic bags could come not just from retailers and restaurateurs but from advocates for low-income families. In addition, when a bag tax was last floated in the city, shoppers noted that they use plastic shopping bags to clean up after their pets, store leftovers and dispose of garbage, and for other household needs.

Grocers expressed fear that a plastic bag crackdown would increase demand for paper bags, which are bulkier and pricier.

"The bottom line is that a proposed tax on plastic shopping bags would add enormous operational pressures and costs to merchants," said Melissa O'Connor, assistant director of government relations for the Retail Council of New York State. "Our opposition is underscored by the regressive tax it would impose on customers shopping in our stores whose paychecks are already stretched thin."

Lander is attempting to address these concerns in his proposal. "We've sat down and had productive dialogues with the grocery store associations and restaurant associations, and we're hopeful that we will find a way [to reduce plastic bag use] that works for the business community as well," he said.

The push to restrict plastic bag use is spurred by pragmatic and environmental concerns. When plastic bags find their way into the recycling waste stream, they become tangled with other materials, jamming the sorting machines. In addition, advocates for a bag bill say New York City pays about $10 million annually to move 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills, where they will languish for up to 1,000 years. Environmentalists add that birds and marine animals representing 267 species die every year from ingesting or becoming entangled in debris, including plastic bags.

"You know we have a problem when many New York trees have more plastic bags than birds in their branches," said Lander.

Lander is working with BagItNYC, a coalition that includes organizations such as Citizens Campaign for the Environment and the New York Restoration Project, to garner support for his effort. The coalition will hold an information session June 24 in Park Slope with speakers including Mr. Lander, Sierra Club and Green Party officials, and Jennie Romer, who spearheaded successful efforts in California to ban or restrict single-use plastic bags.

Several short videos on plastic bags, including "The Immortal Plastic Bag," a mini-documentary about plastic bags in New York City, will be aired.