The Fate Of New York's Plastic Bag Fee Could Be The Shape Of Environmental Legislation To Come

01/19/2017 12:34 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2017

Do you ever feel like maybe not a plastic bag?

Earlier this week, the New York State Senate voted in favor of a bill to ban fees on non-reusable plastic bags.

The bill, proposed in response to a fee set to go into effect in New York City next month, would only apply to cities with a population of 1 million or more, effectively targeting only New York City. (The state’s next-largest city, Buffalo, has a population of just over 261,000.)

When the proposed bag fee – 5¢ per bag, with exemptions that include SNAP and WIC transactions – was initially passed, by a 28-20 vote in the City Council, opponents described it as an illegal tax and overly burdensome to poorer New Yorkers. Bag the Ban, a project organized by South Carolina-based plastic manufacturer Novolex, claims that “taxing plastic bags will not have a significant impact on waste reduction in the city.” (It also mischaracterizes the proposed fee as 10¢, and states, weirdly, that a bag fee would be unsuccessful in New York City because “unlike San Francisco and Washington, D.C., New York City is a walking city.”)

Generally, taxes and other restrictions on plastic bags have been shown to work. According to the BBC, a €0.15 tax on plastic bags implemented in Ireland in 2002 led to a 95% reduction in plastic bag litter and 90% of shoppers switching to reusable bags.

San Jose, California, implemented a ban on the bags in 2011 and has seen reductions of litter by "approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods.” Last November, California voters approved a statewide ban on plastic bags.

Several plastic bag manufacturers from outside California – including Texas-based companies Advance Polybag and Superbag, as well as Hilex Poly, a subsidiary of the same Novolex that’s behind Bag the Ban – spent heavily in attempts to influence that state’s plastic bag legislation.

Tomorrow, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Environmental groups have already expressed concern about the incoming administration’s policies and appointments. Trump himself has stated his plan to keep an “open mind” about the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. He also made campaign promises to roll back environmental protections, claiming they block economic growth.

In the face of an administration likely to be unsupportive of environmental causes, it’s more important than ever that proponents of manageable measures at the local level – like the plastic bag fee – voice their concern.

For the ban on bag fees to take effect, it will need to pass in the state assembly, and then be signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has spoken in support of the bag fee, has not always seen eye to eye with Governor Cuomo. (Their relationship was characterized as a “pissing match” in the Post last month.) But now is the time for concerned New Yorkers, both city and state, to make clear their support for a strong consensus in favor of environmental protection.

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