Plastic bags in grocery stores will cost you, if new bill passes

That plastic bag your grocer puts your eggs and bread in at the checkout counter will cost you 10 cents, if a new bill introduced on Tuesday wins the City Council’s approval.

Lander (D-Park Slope-Cobble Hill) and Councilwoman Margaret Chin (D-Lower Manhattan) have introduced a bill that would require grocery stores to charge customers 10 cents for each plastic bag. There would also be a charge for paper bags, under the proposed legislation.

It’s in the interest of protecting the environment, according to Lander and Chin, who said New Yorkers use 5.2 billion carryout bags per year, the vast majority of which are not recycled. Plastic bags account for over 1,700 tons of residential garbage each week in New York City. The bill’s sponsors said plastic bags get stuck in storm drains, exacerbating flooding and sewage discharges into waterways, and are the fourth most commonly found type of litter on U.S. beaches.

New York City pays an estimated $10 million to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills in other states each year.

The proposed plastic bag charge would not be a tax, Lander said. The 10 cents for each bag would be retained by the store to cover the cost of providing bags, he said. Customers who bring their own bags would not be charged.

“It can be easy to forget the impact we each have on the environment – an impact that really adds up when you have a city of 8 million people,” Lander said. “The truth is there are a lot of times that we don’t really need a plastic bag. This common sense legislation will help New York cut plastic bag waste, both saving money and reducing litter, without effecting small businesses,” he said.

Similar laws in other cities reduced plastic bag use by as much as 90 percent, council members said.  

Chin said the bill will help make New Yorkers more environmentally conscious. “Too often at the register, we bag and double-bag, heedless of the severe environmental cost we all pay. In my district in Lower Manhattan, after a busy weekend, you can see these bags overflowing from trash cans and in the streets and gutters. The bags end up clogging our streets, littering our public parks, and costing taxpayers millions of dollars in clean up and waste removal,” she said.

“This bill incentivizes consumers to bring their own reusable bags and think twice before reaching for paper or plastic ones, which will cut back on pollution and ultimately protect New York City’s invaluable green spaces and waterways that have been under threat for too long," Chin said.

Environmental groups applauded the bill. “This is a strong and thoughtful piece of legislation that builds on what we’ve seen across the country and that will work in New York City,” said Jennie R. Romer, founder of the website PlasticBagLaws.org. “Legislation like this has been shown to lead to swift and significant changes in consumer behavior because consumers must make a decision as to whether they need a carryout bag for each particular purchase, taking into account any future use of the bag including use as garbage can liners or dog waste,” she said.

“This bill would allow the city to cut down on litter and plastic pollution in a way that is fair and equitable to both consumers and retailers," said Eric A. Goldstein, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We care deeply about the economic challenges of New Yorkers who are struggling to make ends meet and believe this legislation directly addresses their concerns,” he said.

New York State does have a voluntary plastic bag recycling program, but it has proven ineffective because it lacks enforcement, Lander and Chin said.

The bill contains exceptions. For example, produce, meat and bulk food bags used within stores are exempt from the charge in order to protect food from contamination. Pharmacies that place a customer’s medications in bags are also not required to follow the new law. Emergency food providers, such as food pantries, would be exempt from the charge.

“New Yorkers have to realize that plastic bags are not ‘free,’” Councilman Stephen Levin (D-Greenpoint-Williamsburg) said. Levin is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“The cost of plastic bags is very real for our environment and it is important that we as a city take a stand against pollution. I strongly support this legislation that will curtail the usage of plastic bags, reduce pollution of plastics, and protect our environment here in New York City,” Levin said.

Not everyone thinks the bill is a good idea. Mark Daniels, chairman of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an organization representing plastic bag manufacturing and recycling businesses in the US, said his group opposes the legislation.

“New York City residents already pay among the highest taxes in the nation. A 10-cent per bag tax would be a detriment to hardworking families and businesses trying to make ends meet,” Daniels said.

“The proponents of this bill are misinformed and largely rely on science that has been hijacked by environmental activists. A grocery bag tax pushes shoppers toward less sustainable options, like reusable bags, which cannot be recycled, are made from foreign oil and imported at a rate of 500 million annually,” he said.

Daniels said the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling sectors employ 30,800 workers in 349 communities across the country, including nearly 2,000 in New York State.

“The reality is American-made plastic retail bags are 100-percent recyclable and make up such a small portion of the waste stream that taxing them will not reduce waste,” Daniels said.