Two years ago the plastics industry had victory in the bag.
In February 2017, Albany blocked New York City's 5-cent fee on plastic bags, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would form a commission to study the issue — a favorite device for making a controversy disappear.
But in late March, news broke that the state would ban disposable plastic grocery sacks next year. For manufacturers, it was the political equivalent of a dozen eggs plunging through a torn bag to the sidewalk below.
What happened? For a time the industry prevailed by borrowing the rhetoric of its left-wing opponents — claiming a fee would punish the poor.
"They successfully defined the issue as a regressive tax," observed Eric Soufer, a consultant at Tusk Ventures, which helps businesses navigate New York politics but did not have a client in this case. "They made plastic bags an economic-justice issue — and for a time, that worked."
As the City Council debated the surcharge, the American Progressive Bag Alliance argued that a fee would hurt marginalized consumers and kill jobs at businesses that supply the bags. To help deliver this message, it enlisted activist Bertha Lewis, founder of the Black Institute and former head of the activist group Acorn, to testify against the legislation.
Bag makers coupled that with calls to expand the recycling of their product, wrapping themselves in the colors of the environmental movement. Even today, the bag alliance's website uses a logo with the recycling symbol and the slogan "Reduce. Recycle. Reuse." The group did not respond to Crain's New York Business requests for comment. Crain's New York Business is a sister publication of Plastics News.
"The industry was good. They lobbied effectively. They hired well," admitted Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, who championed the fee. "Never mind that the point isn't for people to pay the fee. The point is for people to bring reusable bags."
But while manufacturers forestalled regulation in the city, bag critics built momentum on a larger scale. Suffolk County, the city of Long Beach and Ulster County implemented their own strictures on single-use bags. And the 2018 elections flipped the state Senate to Democratic control while empowering liberals in the state Assembly. Perhaps sensing a bill heading his way, Cuomo proposed his own solution to the plastic bags accumulating in landfills and waterways.
"Astroturf campaigns like that can convince politicians in a short window of time," said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of the Environmental Advocates of New York. "But when you get down to the local and county levels, they don't sway people like they do politicians in those larger venues."
His group lobbied for state action, but he said of the result, "I'm not sure it's anything the environmental community was doing as much as these pedestrian issues like litter, plastic bags, foam packaging, foam takeout containers — it just resonates with the average individual and they understand it intuitively."
Will Bredderman is a politics reporter for Crain's New York Business.