Guest Op-Ed: Trash the bag tax

I commend my colleagues Councilmembers Brad Lander and Margaret Chin for acknowledging the environmental damage that plastic bags cause, and transitioning this problem into a public policy solution. Plastic bags clog up our sewer systems, pollute our streets and green space, and take 10 to 20 years to decompose. However, I oppose Int. 209 which places a regressive consumer tax disproportionately targeting the city’s low income citizens, seniors and working families.

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. That is the case with most nuisance taxes and is the case with Int. 209. As is the case with most nuisance taxes, this bill burdens the communities that it is trying to help. The cost to buy essential groceries will increase for every New Yorker.

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. In addition, studies have shown that reusable bags are unsanitary and are rarely washed by their users.

“Our goal,” say supporters “is to incentivize New Yorkers to bring reusable bags.” Yet, in Washington D.C., which has had a bag tax since 2009 and where the government collects the tax from the stores, a different result has emerged. These tax collections do not support the idea that plastic bag use has dropped dramatically. Indeed between DC’s 2012 and 2013 fiscal years, bag tax revenue grew by about $12,000 — which represents well over 200,000 additional bags used compared to the previous year.

So, despite it being labeled as a “rousing success,” D.C. revenue figures show no continuing decrease in the use of disposable bags. And while Int. 209 does not add the revenue collected to the city’s bottom line, the D.C. numbers serve as an objective caution flag as to the efficacy of any such effort to curtail the use of these bags.

Are plastic bags a danger to the environment? Yes. Do we need a solution? Yes. Is this bill the solution? No.

We certainly need to solve the plastic bag epidemic and I hope to work together with my colleagues in the City Council to reach a more effective plan.

City Councilmember Vincent Gentile represents the 43rd Council District.

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