NYC to require 5¢ charge for single-use shopping bags

Over two years ago I wrote about my experience on a quick run to a nearby grocery store to pick up a few items. Seven items, to be exact—which were then placed in six plastic bags, flimsy because they were intended to be used only once and then tossed out. (It was a spur-of-the-moment trip on the way home that evening, so I didn’t have the usual reusable bags I would have given the grocery store to put my items in.)

Those six bags were among the approximately 10 billion single-use bags that the NYC Department of Sanitation estimates New Yorkers toss out every year—a whopping 19,000 every minute. Disposing these bags costs city taxpayers in excess of $10 million a year.

So it is welcome news today to learn that the New York City Council has passed legislation that will require stores, with “limited exceptions”, to charge five cents for every single-use bag they give shoppers. According to The New York Times, the legislation passed by one of the closest margins in recent years, 28–20. The mayor, Bill de Blasio, has expressed his support for the law.

But it’s not in the clear yet: former mayor Michael Bloomberg “offered a proposal in 2008 for a 6-cent bag fee — 5 cents for stores; a penny for the city — before dropping it several months later amid strong opposition. At the time, one of the opponents on the Council was Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who is now a state senator. Last month, Senator Felder introduced a bill [S7336] that would prohibit the levying of local fees on bags; it passed a committee this week,” writes the Times.

And the fee itself is not perfect. Unlike the bag fee imposed in my former hometown, the District of Columbia, where the nickel collected on every bag helps clean up the heavily polluted Anacostia River, the stores will keep every cent they collect of New York’s proposed charge.

But, in the end, if the results in New York are anything like those in the nation’s capital and other cities that have imposed a charge on single-use bags, you can expect to see far fewer of them littering our streets and polluting our city very soon. A small fee can lead to big behavioral change.

Image: New York City Hall by Momos via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

NYC considering bag fee

Two weeks ago I wrote about a quick run to the grocery store where I picked up seven items that the checker packed into three plastic bags—which were then dutifully double bagged, meaning I carried seven items home in six bags.

So yesterday evening, as I was doing laundry at the laundromat down the street, I was delighted to see CBS 2 report that the New York City Council is considering legislation that would require stores to charge customers per disposable bag.

According to Weijia Jiang’s report, the charge would be 10¢, which stores would be allowed to keep (unlike Washington, D.C.’s 5¢ bag fee, which is split between stores and a fund to clean up the heavily polluted Anacostia River). Supermarkets, bodegas, street vendors, drugstores, clothing stores, and department stores would be required to charge the fee; restaurants, bags for medication at pharmacies, and liquor stores would be exempt. The fee would apply to both paper and plastic bags.

Though stores would keep the change, the city government stands benefit financially, too, by saving an estimated $10 million a year it currently spends on disposing paper and plastic bags in the city’s garbage.

The New York Post reports that the legislation has 19 cosponsors, just seven short of the 26 needed to pass it.

This is welcome—if overdue—news.

New York City’s plastic-bag addiction

On my way home yesterday evening, I ran by the grocery store to pick up a few things. I ended up buying seven items:

The items I bought on my run grocery store.
The items I bought on my run to the grocery store.
  1. A carton of eggs
  2. A 2-pound (1-kilogram) bag of frozen peas
  3. A red pepper
  4. A green pepper
  5. Half and half
  6. Chocolate milk for me
  7. Strawberry milk for my daughter

(The chocolate and strawberry milk were on sale for what I deem an acceptable price, so I thought they would make a nice treat for the end of a long day.)

I normally take a reusable bag to the store with me, but since this was a spur-of-the-moment trip I had no bag on me. How many plastic bags did the checker think I needed to conveniently carry my items home with me? Two? Three? No and nope.

Try six.

That’s right: my seven items were packed into six bags. Let me rephrase that: they were packed into three bags, which were then dutifully double bagged, just like every plastic grocery-store bag in New York City.

That’s the thing: in the five boroughs, virtually every checker at every grocery store double bags everything. Even Trader Joe’s, sometimes regarded as an example of ecoconsciousness because it eschews plastic bags, double bags using paper. It doesn’t matter how large or small the purchase: even a toothbrush will be bagged and that bag placed into another. I guess for fear that the handles on the cheaply-made plastic bags will rip? Or that they’ll dig into your fingers as you’re walking down the street? Both of which are of course a concern with such weighty items as toothbrushes and breakfast cereal.

And they do it no matter the customer or how you got there. I can sort of understand wanting to make sure bags won’t rip or be uncomfortable for people walking some distance. But the grocery store I was at yesterday evening has a large parking lot out in front; chances are I drove. (For the record, I didn’t.) Which makes half a dozen bags for half a dozen items even more ridiculous, when chances are the maximum distance they’ll be carried is from the checkout line to the car and then from the car to the house.

(I will note that another local grocery-store chain, Stop & Shop, recently introduced sturdier plastic bags and no longer double bags items.)

New York City’s recycling rate is an abysmal 15%. Even sprawling, car-dependent, bane-of-the-environment Los Angeles recycles 65% of its garbage.

Fortunately, I’m conscientious with my plastic bags, and they will either be reused or recycled. They will not end up in a landfill or, perhaps worse, on the street. But how many bags in New York City do? As I walk the sometimes trash-strewn streets of this city, it is remarkable how much of the litter consists of plastic grocery bags, used once and then tossed out, where they may remain for the next 500 to 1,000 years. Then again, given this city’s abysmal recycling rate—a mere 15% of our trash is recycled—that’s not too surprising. (Even Los Angeles, a city New Yorkers are keen to look down their noses at as hopelessly sprawling and car-dependent, recycles 65% of its trash.)

Washington, D.C., where I used to live, had a similar problem, and far too many of the bags were ending up in the pollution-choked Anacostia River. So the city decided to do something about it: from 1 January 2010, businesses in the city that sell food or alcohol have been required to charge five cents for every disposable paper or plastic bag a customer receives. The business retains one or two cents, and the remaining three or four cents go to a fund to clean and protect the Anacostia.

After Washington, D.C., instituted a five-cent per-bag fee, the use of disposable bags in the city dropped by at least half.

The results have been remarkable. The fee—a mere nickel per bag—has led to widescale behavioral change throughout the nation’s capital. A recent survey found that 50% to 60% fewer disposable bags are being used, and two-thirds of District residents and businesses report seeing fewer bags as litter. A full four out of five Washingtonians report using fewer bags since the fee was implemented. Small change—in this case, a nickel—can lead to big change.

Which brings me back to the Big Apple—which comes, of course, double bagged. And it’s time to change that.

Photo by Ramin Bahrani/Ars Electronica via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0