New legislation proposing a 10-cent plastic bag tax would further suffocate middle-class New Yorkers already gasping for relief from the highest housing, transportation, food and education costs in the country.
Isn’t it expensive enough to live in the city already?
The plan aims to cut down on the consumption of plastic bags by imposing a 10-cent charge on each nonreusable bag distributed at markets, bodegas, street vendors and retail stores. The mandated fee would force businesses to treat bags as a commodity, bought and sold like any other product, and hold them accountable for excessive noncompliance fines of up to $500. The theory behind the bag tax is that people can be forced to change their behavior (using plastic bags) if the city just imposes enough economic pain on them in the form of a fee.
No one can deny that the use of plastic bags comes at a cost for New York City. Every year, New Yorkers circulate 5.2 billion of these disposable bags, creating 100,000 tons of waste and costing the city $10 million to haul them to landfills. Bags clog sewer drains, creating overflow that pollutes our rivers and waterways, and contribute to street litter that mars the city’s appearance.
However, we should sack the notion that the plastic bag solution lies in New Yorkers throwing more of their hard-earned cash down the drain.
The fee charges shoppers regressively — meaning the same flat rate is applied to all, regardless of income. Over the course of a year the cost of plastic bags could add up to be as much as $200 (my family of five easily uses between 30 and 40 bags a week on trips to grocers, clothing retailers and other stores). Under the bill’s provisions, individuals using food stamps are exempt from the fee. A family of five is eligible for food stamps (aka SNAP benefits) if their annual gross income is below $35,856. Those making above that amount would be held fully accountable for the fee — affecting much of the working poor. For a family making just over the cusp of exemption, $200 is a real bite out of their income; heck, $200 is real money for most Queens families I represent, mine included.
What a bizarre way to make environmental policy — those who can afford to can go on polluting; those who can’t better figure out an alternative.
Punishing individuals as a means to change their behavior instead of creating a fairly implemented plan for waste reduction is irresponsible. If we’re discussing the hazards of plastic bags, a more appropriate conversation might focus on banning them entirely and using a portion of the supposed $10 million annual savings to provide tangible, subsidized alternatives for working New Yorkers. For instance, bag giveaways offer the city the opportunity to generate cleaner streets and sanitation savings by distributing free reusable bags at government offices, street fairs and nonprofits.
The bag tax bill’s main offense is that it believes that better behavior is produced by hitting New Yorker’s where it hurts most — in our wallets. Effective legislation doesn’t squeeze hardworking New Yorkers into compliance, adding yet another financial burden on the backs of America’s most already burdened middle class; it treats all New Yorkers equally and uses gained savings to support better choices.
Rory Lancman is New York City Councilman for the 24th District, in Central and northern Central Queens.