Brooklyn officials sound off on bag fee passed by City Council

Love it or loathe it, Brooklynites will soon be shelling out five cents for the carry-out bags they get at “retail, convenience, and grocery stores, with limited exceptions,” as the City Council has passed legislation requiring the imposition of a single-use bag fee. The legislation passed by a 28-20 vote on Thursday, May 5.

Part of a citywide plan to “significantly reduce consumption of natural resources and waste,” the bag fee, originally proposed at 10 cents, was introduced by Councilmembers Brad Lander of Brooklyn and Margaret Chin of Manhattan to encourage the use of reusable bags and rid the city of the more than nine billion single-use bags — both plastic and paper — used annually by shoppers. Chin and Lander call the bags “environmental hazards” and maintain that they clog up city streets, trees and storm drains.

“In city after city, a small fee has been overwhelmingly successful in getting people to bring their own reusable bags when they shop — across lines of race, ethnicity, age, income and neighborhood — and generated a 60 percent to 90 percent drop in plastic bag waste,” explained Lander.

Brooklyn Councilmember Laurie Cumbo was among those who supported the legislation. “This was an incredibly difficult decision to make as a leader of a very diverse community with multiple perspectives both for and against the bill” she said, adding, “In the end, I believe that humanity’s greatest responsibility is to be the caretakers of the earth across all racial, cultural, economic and class lines. I hope that my support for Intro 209 will be seen historically as the right decision for our environment — for current and future generations to come,”

Although the fee would not apply to purchases of restaurant meals, prescription drugs and groceries bought with food stamps, the surcharge will be applied at all New York City grocery stores as of October 1 – with stores that fail to comply within six months facing a $250 to $500 fine.

But, the legislation — which is on its way to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s desk with the expectation that he will sign it into law — is hardly universally beloved.

“Even at five cents, the fee is without a doubt a regressive tax that will be borne disproportionately by the city’s poor, seniors, blue-collar workers and struggling families,” contended Councilmember Vincent Gentile. “Instead of changing consumer behavior, I feel this bill will only increase the constantly surging cost of living in New York City. Not only will a five-cent surcharge be added to a food bill, an additional item will have to be added to the grocery list: the reusable bag.”

Councilmember Mark Treyger, who also voted against the bill, put a long post on Facebook explaining his opposition, noting, “While the goal to reduce the use of plastic bags is noble, I have serious concerns about the fee approach.”

Instead, Treyger said, “We should allow innovation to reach its potential to solve environmental and economic challenges. Why not invest in new technology to make environmentally friendly bags and have these industries set up a base HERE in NYC! Create good paying jobs while scoring a victory for our environment.”

State Senator Diane Savino — who opposes the Council bill — is hoping Albany will block the city from moving forward with the bag fee. Contending that the legislation was “not well thought-out,” Savino is backing a bill sponsored by State Senator Simcha Felder that would prohibit the city from imposing the bag fee.

“What the bill essentially says is that no locality or municipality can impose a fee, tax or levy a charge in the use of paper or plastic bags in a retail establishment,” Savino explained. “It gets to the heart of what the city is doing.

“There are so many holes in this, starting with the fact that it’s not all stores,” Savino went on, explaining her opposition to the fee. “If I buy my food in a restaurant, that take-out plastic bag is not as offensive as the one from Key Food?”

Savino is also concerned about the fact that, under the legislation, the stores will pocket the money collected from the fee, rather than forward it to the city.

“The most important element in good, sound environmental policy – if you’re going to impose a fee for the purpose of changing people’s behavior – is that the money that’s collected  go towards the recycling of that item,” Savino said. “The idea that stores can impose the fee and take the money for themselves goes against environmental policy.”

Assemblymember Dov Hikind also opposes the fee. “If it looks like a tax, smells like a tax and acts as a tax, then it’s a tax,” he argued. “This notion to charge consumers a nickel for their grocery bags is an unfair tax on hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. As customers, we will now have to worry about having our reusable bags handy every time we go to the supermarket. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio will hold a public hearing on Tuesday, May 10 at 12 p.m. to offer those who oppose the legislation an opportunity to voice their concerns.

Update: As of Tuesday, May 10, after the public hearing was held in regards to the bag tax, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the bill, noting that “Every year, New Yorkers throw away billions – that is a stunning figure – and that all has a negative effect on our environment.”

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