Every minute of every day, usually without thinking, thousands of New Yorkers reach across the counter at shops and supermarkets and accept a disposable plastic bag. The city’s sanitation department estimates that 10 billion bags a year are tossed in the trash — roughly 19,000 per minute.
Now, city officials are poised to test whether a 5-cent charge can wean New Yorkers from the convenient but environmentally unfriendly sacks.
The City Council approved a bill Thursday that would require most merchants to charge customers at least a nickel for each bag, including those made of paper. Technically, the fee isn’t a tax, since stores will get to keep the money they collect.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement after the vote that he intends to sign the law, which will go into effect Oct. 1.
“The Council’s legislation strikes the right balance, reducing reliance on single-use bags and incentivizing the use of reusable bags, while safeguarding consumers with some logical exemptions to protect vulnerable New Yorkers,” the mayor said.
Supporters are hoping the extra charge will force New Yorkers to think twice about accepting a bag and perhaps to start bringing their own. And that, they say, might help keep the bags from filling landfills and blowing into trees and waterways — as they now do constantly in the city.
Some New Yorkers interviewed as they ran errands this week said they weren’t so sure how they would adapt, especially in a city where most people are shopping on foot rather than by car.
“A lot of times I leave work, if I’m on the way home, I don’t have time to have a bag with me,” said Pat Tomasso, 70, who has a neon sign business.
Todd Killinger, 47, who works in advertising, said it’s a good idea. “After a time I think people will switch and bring their own bags but initially not so much,” he said.
On Wednesday, a bill banning New York cities from taxing shopping bags passed a key state Senate panel.
The legislation, introduced by Sen. Simcha Felder in the Cities committee, was sent on unanimously for a floor vote in the Senate. A companion bill in the Assembly was proposed by Assemblyman Michael Cusick of Staten Island.
“The last thing that New Yorkers need is another regressive tax,” said Felder, who as a city councilman fought the plastic bag tax. “I’ve been disgusted every time I’ve heard the absurd plastic bag tax legislation introduced. It’s about time New York City stops nickel and diming New Yorkers.”
Felder added that reusable bags pose a health risk since they may contain things like salmonella, bacteria and other food-borne diseases.
The bill has broad bipartisan support in the Senate. Felder said he will hold a public hearing on his plastic bag bill in Manhattan on June 3.
If the fee is enacted, New York City will join more than 150 other municipalities around the country that have passed ordinances either to ban single-use plastic bags or to charge a fee for them. Officials from Washington, D.C., testified at a New York City Council hearing that their 5-cent bag fee, enacted in 2009, has led to a 60 percent drop in bag use.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg first proposed a plastic bag charge in 2008, but the idea failed to attract support from the City Council. The current bill was introduced in 2014 and has been amended to slash the per-bag fee from 10 cents to 5.
“Everyone knows that plastic bags are a problem,” said Councilman Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat and bill sponsor. “They blow everywhere. They never biodegrade. They’re made of petroleum. And we don’t need them.”
Opponents say the fee essentially amounts to a new tax on a heavily taxed population.
“I’m tired of my constituents being nickeled-and-dimed all the time,” said Councilman Steven Matteo, a Staten Island Republican who voted against the bag fee. “It’s going to give my constituents another reason to shop in New Jersey.”
According to the Sanitation Department, New York City spends $12.5 million a year to send plastic bags to landfills and even more to clean them off beaches, parks and other public spaces.
Lee Califf, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, accused the City Council of “imposing a new, regressive grocery bag tax that will hurt seniors, working class and low-income New Yorkers while enriching grocers.”
The law covers plastic and paper bags given out by grocery stores, drugstores and other retailers. The fee would be collected by the store, not the government.
Exemptions include restaurant takeout orders and purchases made with food stamps.
Nancy Moore, 55, said she didn’t approve of the bag fee but would adapt.
“I’ll have to bring bags with my shopping cart everywhere I go,” Moore said. “Or they might have a deal if you buy a certain amount of groceries they give you the bag free. I hope they do that.”
No such luck. The law would prohibit such a promotion.