Sack the Bag Fee

With middle-class New Yorkers being squeezed by the city’s skyrocketing cost of housing, high taxes and the steep prices of paying for home heating during a brutal winter, one would expect that the City Council would work hard to lower the costs of living in New York City.

One would also think that the new City Council would roll up its sleeves to try to tackle some of the thorny problems facing Gotham: Soaring retiree pension costs, crumbling roads and sewers, a dismal 66-percent high school graduation rate — and even many of those who graduate are woefully unprepared to enter college.

Instead of targeting difficult problems and trying to find real solutions, the Council has decided to find a way to raise the costs of living in the city. Last week, 19 City Council members expressed their support for a 10-cent fee on all bags used in retail establishments, excluding takeout food, street vendors and pharmacies. The fee will be on both plastic and paper bags.

According to the bill’s sponsors, council members Brad Lander and Margaret Chin, the New York City Sanitation department spends an estimated $10 million in hauling away 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills.

Now, $10 million is a significant amount of money for taxpayers, but why doesn’t the City Council do the math on how much a fee would cost New Yorkers, who use approximately 5.2 billion plastic bags a year?

If plastic-bag usage is even cut in half, with people reusing their plastic bags, it will now cost New Yorkers more than $250 million in fees to pay for bags. And cutting plastic-bag usage that steeply is an unlikely scenario. Most New Yorkers will not bring their own bags to stores, the same way that most city residents don’t return their cans or bottles for recycling. In addition, while 5.2 billion bags are a lot of bags, how many of those bags were used to hold garbage? Many New Yorkers repurpose plastic bags to hold trash.

According to Chin, plastic bags litter our shorefronts and clog storm drains. True enough. But there are already many laws on the books to impose fines for littering. Enforcing the law against the few who pollute would be more effective than making everyone suffer for those who are breaking the law.

And then there will be a whole new layer of enforcement, of bureaucracy to police the plastic-bag fee. The city will have to hire a cadre of bag officers to swoop down on retail establishments. We have “New York’s Finest,” and “New York’s Bravest.” Will we now have “New York’s Baggiest”? The bag squad, according to the bill, will have to slap store owners who don’t comply with a $250 fine.

Even well-intentioned New Yorkers will find it challenging to reuse plastic bags. Imagine having to remember to bring along a sack full of bags every time you are going out to do any grocery or clothing shopping. Most shopping bags these days are so thin and prone to holes that reusing them more than once or twice is nearly impossible. If shoppers bring their own reusable bags to stores, as some will certainly do to evade the fee, the city will likely see a spike in infectious diseases. One study found that 12 percent of reused bags had E. coli, a dangerous bacteria that can cause food poisoning and neonatal infections as well as pneumonia.

This proposal will also be a killer for businesses. Retailers and groceries have enough problems trying to stem the epidemic of shoplifting. Making a law where consumers have to bring their own bags will simply make it a cakewalk for shoplifters to slip more items off the shelves. Stores that rely on foot traffic will find they have fewer customers who buy only several items coming to shop. Most pedestrians don’t carry empty plastic bags with them and will balk at paying an additional fee for bags when that could amount to a significant percentage of the total cost of the items.

In order for the bill to pass, it requires seven more council members to approve the measure and then Mayor de Blasio’s signature. A few billion bags may sound like a lot, but it’s only 7.5 percent of all the rubbish produced by the city. The mayor and the rest of the city council should shelve the proposal as quickly as possible. All this talk about a new tax on plastic bags is a lot of trash.