Solutions for the Plastic Bag fee in NYC

Recently, and unfortunately, Governor Cuomo stopped the plastic bag law- where customers would be charged a 5 cent fee for disposable plastic bags in the city. The fee was supposed to be in effect back in October 2016, got delayed to Feb 15 2017 and is now halted. The reason being that we cannot allow food stores to make profits on plastic bags. Plausible reason, to avoid any conflict of interest.

Still, we can remain hopeful, as NYC has skilled and strong enough people in the City who can work out a very quick and easy middle-ground. Many other States, Counties and Cities have already implemented bans and fees that are working for them.

First a clarification. NYC is not proposing a “ban” on the plastic bag, which would mean not having the option of obtaining a plastic bag at check-out in any store. If the stores DID provide plastic bags, they would be fined. There is such a ban in a few cities across the nation — big cities such as Los Angeles (since 2014), San Francisco (since 2013), Seattle (since 2012), and Austin (since 2013) being among them. This proves the possibility of implementing such a ban without having an impact on lower income families. That is a separate topic to be covered in another article.

NYC is proposing to have a 5 cent fee at check-out for each bag that is provided to the consumer. The fee is meant to deter the public from plastics and instead prefer the alternative and more environmentally friendly reusable bags which are widely available in the city. Many shops even give them away for free during promotions. The point is to avoid plastic bags and their ugly, costly and harmful side-effects in the city.

Doubtlessly, we are on the right track. The bill has not been completely killed. Just seriously slowed down. There has been much progress recorded since we first started talking about it in 2014 in NYC. There is a wider consensus that the bag is bad for us and our amazing city. Now we need to work out the semantics around what happens to the collected fees.

A very quick and dirty way to decide is to look at what has worked for many other cities and states. There are multiple cities in the nation (and of course globally) who have full-out bans or fees implemented successfully.

The most similar to the proposed NYC ordinance appears to be in Portland Maine. They charge 5 cents per bag, and the business owner gets to keep the fee so long as the fee is itemized on the sales receipt. Reportedly, 6 months after the ordinance usage of reusable bags went from 10% of customers to 80% of customers. Major grocery chains announced that they also gave out free reusable bags on the weeks prior to the fee taking effect in April 2015. Now, more and more cities and counties within Maine are following suit. As far as fee usage and impact goes the data is still being collected in order to report a conclusion but the opinions are that there have been a decrease in costly interruptions in drainages and recycling facilities across the city. Data is pending on this current supposition.

Perhaps the easiest for NYC is to copy what Boulder Colorado does -have the stores use 60% of the ban for creating educational materials to be distributed/displayed to the shoppers. Another option could be to create a fund to provide reusable bags for low income families — or repurpose the fund in a more suitable way for the city.

Another option is to follow in the footsteps of Montgomery County, Maryland and implement a tax rather than a fee. Ensure that this tax is used by the city in activities to help improve the environment around the city, in this case, and promote educational materials.

Maybe it’s a mix of all of them — create a fund that will collect the fees. 5 cents is marked for each bag transaction by the city, added to a fund for a River Clean-up where those who are in need of employment are employed on a weekly/monthly basis for clean-up. Have other activities organizing cleanups and educational activities for the general public to participate in etc.

Alternatively, the decision could be to place the responsibility on the store owners, instead of enabling plastic pollution in the city they can use the funds to enable the cleanups. They get to keep the funds, as long as they report on how much plastic they have cleaned up from the Hudson and the city streets/waterways periodically for example. There are so many ways to use those funds to improve our city, so long as we are working towards the same target.

One thing that is missing in the city is the visibility of informational materials available to the public regarding plastic pollution, recycling facts etc. Maybe the funds can be used for these materials. This also is a different topic to be discussed in depth.

We need to remember that we haven’t had the plastic bag for too long, only since 1977, and we see them flying around all over the place in the city. We see them clogging our waste water systems and fluttering over trees. It is a very serious problem that has a straight-forward solution.

We aren’t the first city to implement a plastic bag fee and we have many talented and skilled individuals who work for the city who can reach a workable solution. Where there is a will there is a way. We just need to be sure the way isn’t too far around the corner.

If you liked this article please recommend and share. If you have any constructive ideas for the plastic bags in NYC please let me know in the comments below.

Ocean Actionist. Circular Economy Consultant. Reuse and Plastic recycling SME. Entrepreneur. Speaker. Underwater Photographer. NYC.

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