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Queens Chronicle

How would bag fee law actually work?

Questions remain on environmental bill to charge a dime apiece at stores

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Posted: Thursday, October 10, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:52 am, Thu Oct 17, 2013.

Numerous questions surround the City Council proposal to levy a 10-cent fee on each plastic or paper bag shoppers use to take food and other retail purchases home.

Designed to reduce plastic bag use to protect the environment, the bill was introduced by Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) and is co-sponsored by several Council members. It is before the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management.

Lander and the bill’s backers say it will enhance the environmental conditions of New York and save consumers and the city money.

“It can be easy to forget the impact we each have on the environment — an impact that really adds up when you have a city of eight million people,” Lander said. “The truth is: There are a lot of times that we don’t really need a plastic bag. This common-sense legislation will help New York cut plastic bag waste, both saving money and reducing litter, without affecting small businesses.”

But how the measure would be enforced is an open question, and it contains numerous exemptions: for restaurants, street vendors that sell food similar to the items at stores covered by the fee, meat and produce products and individuals who make purchases via food stamps.

According to Lander, the exemptions for “in-store” bags that hold produce, meat and bulk food are there to protect food from contamination.

That was a point supported by Councilwoman Gale Brewer (D-Manhattan), a co-sponsor.

“When you wrap up chicken or meat or something, it’s a small little bag and I think they don’t want it to leak into the bag that you might bring from home,” Brewer said.

The councilwoman also defended some of the bill’s other exemptions, saying that it will exempt restaurants and take-out food due to the limited alternatives available.

But unanswered are questions about the measure’s implementation, when people can use self-checkout lanes at stores and may take extra bags after ringing up their purchases.

Brewer said enforcement may vary from store to store, particularly between big stores and small ones, and that she was not sure if the enforcement would be adequate.

Enforcement concerns are among the reasons for opposition to the bill by Brad Gertsman of the New York Association of Grocery Stores. “If there is no way of enforcing it, that means some supermarkets will do it and some supermarkets will not do it,” said Gertsman.

Gertsman said that will lead to issues involving store-to-store competition, with greater sales for the stores that have lax or nonexistent enforcement of rule.

But his greatest concern about the bill is the cost to consumers.

“First of all, we don’t believe in taxing our customers,” he said about the group’s philosophy, adding that consumers should not have to deal with extra costs in an anemic economy.

“Groceries are expensive enough,” said Gertsman. City residents “need to spend very carefully and by doing so they don’t need to have extra taxes on money they spend on the grocery store for essentials.”

Regarding people wanting extra bags after they’ve been rung up and the cashier has moved on to the next customer, Brewer had no specific answer but stated the research done on the bill shows that it will not metastasize into a major issue. “I don’t think it has been a big problem in other cities,” she said.

Supporters of the bill insist it will save people money. “I want people to realize, in the long run, it’s a cost saving,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), a co-sponsor. “Many of these bags get into our storm drains, and cause flooding or problems within our sewer system,” and it costs money to clean them up.

Crowley said she, in partnership with a nonprofit organization, would hand out free reusable shopping bags to constituents.

Fellow Queens Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) heavily extolled the amount of money the city would save in cleanup costs and the environmental impact related with the implementation of the bill.

“Each year the City of New York spends $10 million transporting 100,000 tons of plastic bags which are harmful to our environment,” Van Bramer said. “Many of these plastic bags get caught in trees, stuck in storm drains, exacerbating flooding and sewage discharge into New York City waterways. I believe it is important to protect our environment and through the introduction of this bill we have begun a conversation about how we as individuals can have a positive impact on the world we live in.”

Crowley agrees with Van Bramer’s sentiments and believes that opposition to the bill will eventually fade away.

“People didn’t like recycling at first in this city but then they got used to it,” she said. “I think people who are resistant to this cost for plastic bags will get used to bringing canvas bags to shop with them.”

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