Why All New Yorkers Should Support the Bag Bill

Separated colorful used plastic shopping  bags for waste collection
Separated colorful used plastic shopping bags for waste collection

This post is co-authored with Diana Blackwell is a resident of Fred Samuel Houses, a member of the Citizens Committee for New York City, and WeAct for Environmental Justice.

As you read this, chances are you've already used one today. Lightweight, durable, and convenient, plastic bags have become a staple of commerce -- so ubiquitous that most cashiers and shopkeepers usually don't even ask if you really need one.

But with New Yorkers using over 9 billion plastic bags a year, contributing over 90,000 tons of solid waste to our landfills, and costing taxpayers $12.5 million to haul to landfills, our carefree attitude about bags is causing our city a big problem. Fortunately it's one we can do something about.

A bill being discussed in the City Council will drastically cut plastic bag waste by encouraging the use of reusable bags through a charge of five cents per bag at checkout. There are those that claim the bill will have an adverse impact on low-income New Yorkers. But no New Yorker will be forced to pay a fee at checkout. This bill is not about pocket change, it's about behavior change. We know every New Yorker -- no matter where they fall on the socio-economic spectrum -- can bring a reusable bag and avoid the charge at checkout.

Just like every New Yorker can bring a reusable bag, every New Yorker, no matter where they live, must have the ability to recycle. That is why I introduced legislation last June that would provide incentives to NYCHA residents for recycling. Recycling incentive programs allow participants to earn points for their recycling efforts. These points, in turn, can be redeemed on rewards through participating retailers, restaurants and other commercial establishments -- including discounts and deals from local businesses. Such incentive programs have proven to be successful in large cities throughout the country.

Pundits will say that environmental issues are only a concern for the wealthy elite who have nothing bigger to be concerned about. They'll say that the wealthy can do away with plastic bags because they can afford a five cent fee, but it's a burden on low-income New Yorkers who can't worry about the environment when they have bigger issues like housing, food, and health. But that's insulting.

In fact, it's low-income communities that are hardest hit by environmental factors. It's residents of the South Bronx and North Brooklyn that have the highest rates of asthma because of decades of unfair policies, overwhelming children with pollution from dirty, high-emission garbage trucks, long haul trucks, and highways. It is low-income children in public housing and neighborhoods across the country who are being poisoned by polluted water, while wealthy families drink filtered and bottled water.

That is why we have worked hard to develop a smart policy that won't put a burden on low- and middle- income New Yorkers -- the bill exempts customers using SNAP, WIC benefits and other transactions at emergency food providers from being charged, while protecting these very communities from the dangers of environmental harm.

And we are also dedicated to working with community organizations, such as Citizens Committee for New York City, to give away free reusable bags, particularly in low-income households and stores in low-income neighborhoods. We will work to ensure that every New Yorker who needs a reusable bag gets one for free.

Smart policies that encourage and remind us to change our behavior, like a charge on plastic bags, or increasing recycling in our public housing, can have a big impact. As one of the most progressive places in the world, New York City cannot fall behind other cities that have already implemented these policies and reaped the benefits. Washington DC implemented a five cent tax in seven years ago and California banned plastic bags altogether in 2014. Bangladesh, Chile, and Haiti have all banned plastic bags.

The number that's too high isn't five cents, it's the $12.5 million we spend annually to landfill plastic bags--money that could be used to support social service programs instead. Again, the number that's too high is the 90,000 tons of plastic bags we add to our waste stream annually and of course, the 9 billion plastic bags we all use, usually just once, every year.

With these small changes in our behavior, supported by smart public policy, every New Yorker, regardless of where they live or how much they make, can take the small step of bringing a reusable bag to the store for purchases or recycling in their home. By making these small changes, we can make huge strides towards a more environmentally sustainable NYC.