Fighting Their Way Out Of a Plastic Bag

Lawmakers in Albany are expressing fierce opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan that New York City will impose a five-cent fee on plastic bags starting in February.

Not that there was any disagreement about the mayor’s good intentions. His critics said they fully share his concern for the environment. The consensus that non-biodegradable polyethylene bags clog up waterways and kill wildlife is not in dispute.

Nor is the efficacy of such fees or taxes at issue. Unquestionably, they work. In San Jose, California, a study found that a 2011 ban passed there has reduced plastic litter by “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in city streets and neighborhoods.”

In Ireland, a similar ban led to a 95 percent reduction in the plague of plastic there since 2002. In January, the new Israeli bag ban went into effect, and initial reports show a dramatic drop in the use of the contentious containers in favor of reusable ones.

Since 2007, when San Francisco became the first city in the country to outlaw plastic shopping bags, over 132 other cities and counties in 18 states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. The European Union, China, India and dozens of other nations have passed similar laws.

But the New York legislators don’t necessarily want to stop the trend; it isn’t that they don’t care about trees and clean water. They aren’t in favor of plastic bags; they’re just against the city’s way — the usual way — of getting rid of them.

“The issue isn’t whether or not to protect the environment,” Senator Simcha Felder of Brooklyn told the mayor at a hearing in Albany. “Everyone agrees — we all want to protect the environment. Period. What the mayor isn’t addressing is why the city has to always be punitive. What my colleagues and I object to is the approach. Why can’t it be positive? Why don’t you give a nickel back to New Yorkers for a change?”

“There might be another way to do this … that will work for all New Yorkers,” said Assemblyman Michael Cusick (D-Staten Island). “People are exhausted by constant fees, by fares, by everything.”

The advocates of the bag tax are worried about the big picture: the environment, climate change, the Earth, all creatures large and small. But they have lost sight of the human picture. The picture of the poor and middle class residents of New York City who will bear the burden of this new tax, added to all the other taxes and high prices they must pay for the necessities of life.

Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benedetto suggested that the February 15 startup date for the bag fee should be postponed in order to give the city time to come up with a more human-friendly solution.

Felder noted that the original date last October had been pushed off for the very same reason. He accused Mr. de Blasio of not acting in good faith by making use of the time for what it was intended, and to which the city had committed itself.

“Neither your office nor the City Council tried at all to work out a solution or a compromise,” he said.

Still, a second extension might be in order. Maybe this time the city will take the message more seriously, seeing that the state legislature wouldn’t let them have their way. The regional ecosystem will not implode in the meantime. New York City can certainly find some other way to fight its way out of the plastic dilemma, one that will not add to the financial burden of the citizenry.

The mayor was not without allies. Brooklyn Assemblyman Robert Carroll, for one, brought his reusable bag to the hearing and spoke in favor of the fee. And, of course, every environmental group is with him.

While we wait for a solution, there is nothing to prevent the environmentally conscious from voluntarily refraining from adding to what they deem to be a problem of plastic overuse.

Just don’t penalize others for not doing the same, and recognize that the solution shouldn’t be making it even harder for struggling New Yorkers to feed their families.