Paula Lopez owns a small market in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she hands out roughly 200 little plastic bags to her customers daily. But she wishes she didn't have to.
"There are too many of these bags in the water, in the sewers, and hanging in the trees," she said. "People come in here asking for a bag for a box of Tic Tacs. It's just ridiculous."
Lopez is thrilled that the New York City Council just passed a law that would impose a minimum five-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags at stores. Following vigorous debate, the council passed the bill 28-20 on Thursday afternoon, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has already promised to sign it into law.
New Yorkers throw away an estimated 9.3 billion plastic bags each year. By incentivizing shoppers to bring their own bags, the new measure's backers say that it would reduce that number anywhere from 60 to 90 percent. The city now pays over $12 million hauling discarded bags to landfills.
Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC have all passed similar ordinances in recent years. DC officials testified before the New York Council that a five-cent tax helped lower bag use by 60 percent in the city while generating revenue that is used to pay for environmental cleanup in the district. Under the New York law, however, proceeds from the fee go directly to the shop owners — the law doesn't apply to restaurants and take-out places, and grocery stores will still be able to bag up meat and produce without charging extra.
"The number of bags used in our city has become an environmental hazard," said Council President Melissa Mark-Viverito before Thursday's vote. The proposal had divided the council evenly for weeks, but Mark-Viverito, who had been undecided, endorsed the bill last week. This signaled that support for the measure had at least a slight majority on the council, though the final vote resulted in a wider margin than was expected.
The bag fee has been in the works for years. Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to propose a plastic bag surcharge in 2008, but failed to rally support on the council. In 2014, Councilmembers Brad Lander and Margaret Chin tried to get a 10-cent fee passed, but the measure faltered over concern that it would disproportionately burden low-income New Yorkers.
Over the course of Thursday's debate, several members described the tax as "regressive," unfairly affecting the poor, elderly, and those on public assistance who can't afford even a small uptick in living expenses.
Steven Matteo, a councilman from Staten Island who opposes the bill, said that it "nickels and dimes" his constituency and will bleed hundreds of millions of dollars a year from everyday shoppers.
"If it smells like a tax... it's a tax," remarked Paul Valone, a councilman from Queens, as he urged his colleagues to vote against the measure on Thursday. "It takes money from my constituents and puts it in the pockets of businesses."
Many council members also voiced concern that the fee would incentivize shoppers to go to New Jersey to shop, hitting the bottom line of New York businesses.
De Blasio plans to sign the bill, which exempts people on food stamps from paying the fee, and has dismissed the idea that it will adversely impact low-income New Yorkers.
"Why I do not believe it is regressive is because it changes people's behavior very quickly," the mayor said in late April when he declared his support for the fee. "This is what we've seen all over the country. This kind of approach leads people to bring, you know, a tote bag with them and stop using the plastic bags."
The American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group that lobbies against laws that restrict plastic bag use, had been calling on the council to reject the measure. The fee is a "new, regressive grocery bag tax," Lee Califf, executive director of the group said, adding that it will that "hurt seniors, working class and low-income New Yorkers while enriching grocers."
Chris Lee, a 50-year-old martial arts instructor, doesn't appreciate the council trying to reach into his pocket and influence how he carries his groceries.
"If they want me to stop using bags, just ban them," he said as he stuffed a bagel and orange juice into a small plastic bag at a Brooklyn market. "These sorts of fees just amount to theft."
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