Why New York City might not tax plastic bags, bucking trend

The New York City Council is sharply divided over a plan to tax paper and plastic bags at grocery and other retail stores. While supporters tout the environmental benefits, others worry it will put an additional burden on poor and working-class folks.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Shoppers pass by store windows on December 19, 2013 in Brooklyn, New York.

The cultural cliché “paper or plastic?” – heard in many of America's grocery stores for decades – could soon include a 10-cent-a-bag levy in New York City’s retail outlets.

The New York City Council debated a new plan Wednesday that would slap a 10-cent tax on the paper and plastic bags now given gratis to shoppers at grocery and other retail stores – a save-the-planet effort to curb the billions of disposable bags that often become what some call “urban tumbleweeds” flitting about in wind-swept city landscapes.

Indeed, New Yorkers consume nearly 10 billion disposable bags a year, or a startling 91,000 tons of waste that the city’s Sanitation Department says costs New York nearly $13 million a year – figures that advocates cite as common-sense reasons to enact the proposed plan.

The bill would allow the nation’s largest city to join a growing national trend to tax – or even ban outright – the widespread use of plastic bags in retail stores. In September, California became the first state to prohibit stores from offering plastic bags to consumers. The legislation, which starts taking effect next year, follows earlier moves by at least 90 California municipalities, including Los Angeles, which in January banned the use of plastic bags at grocery and retail stores like Wal-Mart and Target.

Austin, Texas, also banned single-use plastic bags at retail stores in 2013, and cities such as Boulder, Colo., and Washington have levied taxes on their use in an effort to curb consumer behavior for environmental reasons.

But the New York City Council, one of the more liberal legislative bodies in the country, was sharply divided over the plan. Opponents argue that the 10-cent tax would create an additional burden on poor and working-class folks – though the bill exempts those on food stamps from the additional fees.

“Quite frankly, I’m ashamed to sit here today and talk about actually raising taxes on New Yorkers,” said Democratic Councilman David Greenfield of Brooklyn, according to the New York Daily News. “Now I’m going to have to pay three bucks extra a week,” he said, noting that he buys 30 bags of groceries for his family every Thursday night.

But for advocates of the plan, bringing reusable bags while shopping only makes environmental and economic sense.

“Carryout bags are not free. Every New Yorker pays when we see our trees, streets and playgrounds littered with plastic bags,” wrote Ya-Ting Liu, sustainability director for the New York League of Conservation Voters, in an op-ed for the Daily News. “Taxpayers shell out more than $10 million a year just to truck bags to landfills. And single-use bags kill turtles and birds that mistake them for food.”

“A shopper uses a disposable bag on average for just minutes,” Ms. Liu added, “while the toll on the environment lasts for decades.”

The bill would exempt restaurants that use the bags for deliveries and carryout, as well as food pantries and other emergency food services. Paper bags, more expensive than plastic, would also be taxed.

But many members of the city council objected, saying the tax would fall disproportionately on those New Yorkers who struggle to get by. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed similar legislation in 2008, but dropped the issue after many in the city council objected for similar reasons.

“This is a progressive council, doing something like this?” said Democratic Councilman James Vacca of the Bronx, according to The New York Times. “If you’re concerned about income inequality, this is not the way to go.”

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