New York mayor proposes plastic-bag surcharge

In an effort to curb waste and generate revenue, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for a 6-cent fee for every plastic shopping bag given to shoppers.

Frances M. Roberts / NEWSCOM / FILE
A deliveryman carries dinner in plastic bags in New York in September. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing a five-cent surcharge on plastic bags similar to the one already in place in the United Kingdom.

In an effort to curb waste and generate revenue, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has called for a 6-cent fee for every plastic shopping bag given to shoppers.

Under the proposal, for each bag, 1 cent would go to the retailer and 5 cents would go to the city. Officials estimate that the surcharge could bring in $16 million a year, offering a revenue boost to a city that faces a $4 billion deficit over the next two years.
The surcharge is technically considered a fee, not a tax, so it needs only to be approved by New York's City Council, not the state legislature. While this is considered a lower hurdle, the proposal's passage is by no means assured, as The New York Times reports:

Several City Council members said they were intrigued, but needed to see more details. Several did note, however, that it was only a few months ago that the Council passed — with the help of environmentalists and plastic bag manufacturers — a law requiring all stores that provide plastic bags to accept plastic bags for recycling, with some exceptions. And during the lengthy public debate over that bill, council members heard speakers testify that fees of at least 25 cents a bag needed to be imposed to get consumers to change their behavior.
Another concern is whether the tax would hurt poor residents, as well as small businesses, disproportionately — a concern mentioned by council members, environmentalists and manufacturers alike.

The Neighborhood Retail Alliance, a coalition of food retailers in New York, condemned the charge, saying that it "illustrates clearly how supermarkets, and their customers, are being nickeled and dimed in NYC."

The Times quotes a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council,  a trade group that mainly represents plastics and chlorine manufacturers:

“A tax on plastic shopping bags would be regressive, with the most severe impacts on those who are least able to absorb them,” said Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the American Chemistry Council, a manufacturers’ lobby. “There are better ways to protect the environment, to encourage sustainable choices and to support recycling without making it harder for those who are already struggling to make ends meet in a difficult economy.”

Other cities have attempted to reduce the thin-film bags through fees, taxes, or outright bans. Last year, San Francisco outlawed them for large supermarkets and pharmacies, and earlier this year, Malibu, Fla., banned them for all businesses. Seattle is attempting to impose a 20-cent "green fee" on plastic and paper bags and a ban on some Styrofoam containers, a measure that is being vigorously opposed by the American Chemistry Council. [Note: As a commenter pointed out below, I mischaracterized the city's foam ban.]

Many other countries have also moved to regulate the bags, including Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Eritrea, France, Ireland, Italy, Rwanda, and most recently, China.

The Worldwatch Institute estimates that Americans discard some 100 billion bags per year, about 6 or 7 bags per American per week. In 2002, according to WorldWatch, some 4 or 5 trillion of the bags were produced.

Made from petroleum, natural gas, or other fossil fuel derivatives, it's believe that plastic bags take more than 1,000 years to break down. Many wind up in the ocean, where they can choke and entangle marine birds and mammals, and particularly sea turtles, who have difficulty distinguishing them from jellyfish.

Many of these ocean-going bags eventually find their way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of trash twice the size of Texas.

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