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Source: Albany Times Union

Editorial: Paper? Plastic? Or this...

Posted: May 9, 2016
Originally Published: May 8, 2016

THE ISSUE:

New York City is expected to impose a fee on most single-use shopping bags.

THE STAKES:

The state Legislature should come up with a statewide law and avoid confusion.

Paper or plastic has been an endless debate when it comes to supermarket checkout lines. Now, there's a third contender: the bring-your-own, reusable option. And it may soon get a big boost from New York City.

Under a bill passed by the City Council and expected to be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, shops and supermarkets will have to start Oct. 1 charging at least 5 cents per bag, paper or plastic. Stores will get to keep the fee.

The goal is to encourage reusable bags and cut down on the estimated 10 billion bags thrown away in the city each year at a cost of $12.5 million annually to landfill them and clean up the litter.

This isn't a new idea. More than 150 municipalities have either banned single-use plastic bags, or imposed a fee on them. And it's having an effect, advocates say. Washington, D.C., says its 5-cent fee has led to a 60 percent drop in single-bag use. Ireland's 2002 tax on plastic bags is said to have cut their proliferation by 90 percent.

New York City's anticipated law should spur the state Legislature to enact a statewide policy — this year. Which means figuring out what it should be before the session ends in June. This is not as simple as just slapping a tax or a fee on plastic bags and hoping consumers simply respond.

For one thing, this can end up being a regressive tax that, small as it seems, would hit people who can least afford it the hardest. New York City is addressing that by exempting purchases made with food stamps.

For another, reusable bags aren't ideal for some purchases, such as restaurant takeout (which New York City also exempts) and meats and fish, which can leave residues that contaminate a reusable bag.

And finally, there's a cost to reusable bags, which, again, can be a burden for low income people.

One solution was offered several years ago by Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which proposed that retailers charge 5 cents for each single-use bag, with a penny going to the retailer and the rest going to the state. We suggested the state use the money to help finance distribution of reusable bags.

There are other variations out there, including a bill sponsored by Assembly MemberFelix Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, that would impose a 15-cent tax on plastic shopping bags, with various exceptions for meat, fish, produce, dairy, cooked foods, and ice. While 15 cents is quite a bit more than other programs we've heard of, the bill provides that the money be used to fund free reusable bags. And 15 cents could be a more motivating charge than a nickel.

If past practice is any indication, what happens in New York City is likely to be copied elsewhere, and before we know it, the state will have a mish-mash of plastic bag laws. One statewide policy makes more sense for consumers and businesses. Whatever it may settle on, the Legislature should put this issue on the front burner, now. Unlike the paper-or-plastic debate, this one shouldn't be endless.