New York City: A story of local vs. statewide plastics bans

Comments Email Print

It’s been four months since California voters agreed to a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. When the plastics industry lost the vote, I expected the debate to spread across the country.

If anything, I underestimated how active this issue would become.

Almost every day I see stories from around the country, and around the world, about proposals to either ban or tax single-use plastics — usually bags. I also continue to see proposals in some states that restrict or prevent municipalities from passing local bans or taxes.

I use my personal Twitter account to share plastics-relevant stories with readers that we won’t necessarily cover on the pages of Plastics News. Some days it seems like half of the stories I share are related to plastic bans and taxes.

The latest battleground was New York City. (And because of the size of the market, this was a debate that we covered, too.) But the debate there took a significantly different path.

It started with a familiar story line: the New York City Council, after an intense debate, voted to put a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper carryout bags. Proponents said plastic bags are rarely recycled, contribute to litter and gum up the works at recycling plants.

Opponents said the fee would be a regressive burden on low-income consumers, and they also complained that the fee would be an unnecessary windfall to grocery stores and retailers that would keep the money.

The bag critics won on the local level, but that wasn’t the end of the debate. Like other states, the issue shifted to the statehouse.

Early this year, the state Legislature’s two chambers voted overwhelmingly to overturn the city ordinance. We reported that the leader of the State Assembly said members heard from many constituents opposed to fees.

That’s where the story takes an unexpected turn. After the legislators in Albany voted to block the law, the issue ended up on the lap of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He could have sided with the Legislature and argued that he was on the side of low-income New Yorkers. Or he could have backed the fee and won the approval of environmentalists.

Tough choice for a politician with higher aspirations, right?

Well, he chose to do both. Sort of.

Cuomo signed the law but called for a statewide solution to the “plastic bag problem.” He asked the leaders of the state’s Senate and Assembly to appoint co-chairs of a task force that would work with him to come up with a legislative solution.

Reading the tea leaves, don’t be surprised if the state either bans single-use bags or hits them with a tax — with the funds going to the state instead of retailers.

“New York — like the rest of the nation — is currently struggling with the environmental impact of plastic and paper bag waste, particularly with a focus on plastic bags,” Cuomo said. “Plastic bags are convenient, but not without financial and environmental costs.”

Unlike his father, Andrew Cuomo is an ambitious man. No one will be surprised if he chooses to run for higher office, maybe as soon as 2020, depending on the political atmosphere in Albany — and Washington.

I don’t expect the Great Plastic Bag Debate of 2017 to play a big role in whether Cuomo is successful at the next level. But I do admire his ability to be on both sides of the issue, at least so far.

Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.” Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.