A bill to force New York City grocers to charge 10 cents for each paper or plastic bag they give customers was unveiled Tuesday, eliciting immediate opposition from some in the business community.
The bill, which is to be introduced in the City Council this week, is favored by environmental groups looking to dramatically reduce the 100,000 tons of plastic bags that the city sends to landfills each year. The New York City Office of Management and Budget says that New Yorkers annually use 5.2 billion carryout bags, the vast majority of which are not recycled.
The legislation aims to alter the behavior of city consumers, who would be able avoid the 10 cent charges by bringing their own bags when they go shopping. Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and other cities have already implemented measures to cut down on plastic-bag consumption, and have seen reductions of 60-90 percent in waste. The New York bill borrows from other cities' bills but does not replicate any one of them.
"While there's some great things in being a leader, there's also some great things in learning from what's been done around the country," said Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, one bill's prime sponsors, at a City Hall rally unveiling the legislation. "We want to achieve a dramatic reduction in bag waste, but we also want to make sure that we don't have any harmful impacts on small retailers and grocery stores, and other small businesses in New York City."
Proponents are framing the measure as one that might initially meet opposition but eventually become broadly popular, in the vein of the Bloomberg administration's workplace smoking ban. The legislation would not need approval from state legislators in Albany because it imposes a "charge" that retailers would keep and not a tax, according to Lander. But one business group representing grocery stores says it is, in fact, a tax, and if the legislation were to become law, a lawsuit would be filed to challenge it.
"We're adamantly opposed to this," said Brad Gerstman, of the New York Association of Grocery Stores. "It's a tax on small businesses and their customers, and it's insane at this juncture to further incentivize customers to go shopping in a different city or state."
The law would be enforced by the Department of Consumer Affairs and would allow businesses an initial two warnings before they could incur a $250 fine for not charging a customer for a bag. The bill would also have the city give away a "significant" number of reusable bags, Lander said. (In the 1980s, the city handed out blue plastic bins when it first mandated recycling of bottles, cans, and jugs, but many of the containers were quickly stolen and municipal officials chalked up the giveaway as a mistake.)
Bags used for food delivery or carryout would be exempt from the charge, as would bags given to customers paying with food stamps.
Lander said over the past six months that the business community had been consulted extensively about the bill, though no business groups showed up at the press conference to support the proposal Tuesday.
While the effort targets plastic bags, a surcharge on paper bags is included so that consumers do not use them to avoid the fee. Proponents say the legislation would save the city $10 million annually on landfill-related costs.
In 2008, Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to impose a tax of 6 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. But proponents of reducing the waste now are citing the success of efforts in other states.
"We've seen across the county that having a small charge on plastic bags can make a huge, dramatic difference," said Jennie Romer, founder of PlasticBagLaws.org. "
With an environmentally-friendly City Council and Bloomberg leaving office at the end of 2013, advocates of the bill are looking to get it passed this year. A spokesman for Lander said proponents of the bill have had "extensive" conversations with the offices of the mayor and Council Speaker Christine Quinn about the bill.