The City Council on Thursday narrowly passed a controversial shopping bag fee aimed at curbing the use of disposable grocery bags in favor of reusable, environmentally-friendly materials.
Proponents of the bill, which passed 28-20, say it will rein in the ubiquitous use of shopping bags — that pile every year in landfills — and bring the New York in line with similar laws passed in cities like San Francisco and Washington D.C.. The law, expected to go into effect in October, imposes a five-cent fee on paper and plastic shopping bags. There are some exceptions: The fee does not apply to bags used by pharmacies, produce and liquor bottles. Soup kitchens and groceries bought with food stamps are also exempt.
“The fee is irritating, which is precisely why it works,” said Council Member Brad Lander. “We don’t want to pay it so we’ll bring bags instead. So the fact that it’s irritating irritates a lot of people.”
Lander and Council Member Margaret Chin were both main sponsors of the legislation.
Brooklyn New School 5th grader Elan Rabiner agrees with Lander. The council member spoke about the bag fee last Monday as a guest of the school’s Green and Government Clubs.
“I like the idea of there being a cost,” said Rabiner, who is a member of the Green Club. “It will help people remember to bring their own bags. With fewer plastic bags, there won’t be as much litter, bags stuck in trees or in the ocean, which can cause sea life to eat the bags and die.”
However, the fee drew almost universal scorn from southern Brooklyn lawmakers, who said it would disproportionally impact low-income and elderly New Yorkers who can’t afford to shell out a nickel for every grocery bag.
“It adds up,” said City Councilman Chaim Deutsch, who voted against the fee. “Put away a nickel or a quarter everyday and see how much you have at the end of the year. People are already having a hard time making ends meet.”
Deutsch said he supports measures to protect the environment, but that the law should be written to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags, not punish those who don’t.
Councilman Mark Treyger agreed, calling the fee “a tale of two environmental policies” because high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods already reward customers who bring reusable bags.
“Unfortunately, we do not have a Whole Foods in our community. One can safely assume which areas have Whole Foods stores and which don’t. For residents of Southern Brooklyn, this is not an equitable solution,” he said in a statement.
There’s still hope that plastic grocery bags won’t go the way of the subway token. State Senator Simcha Felder, who as a councilman voted against a six-cent bag fee touted by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has introduced a bill to prohibit municipalities from setting bag fees, the New York Times reports.
Felder told the Times the fees are “nothing less than a tax on the poor and the middle class — the most disadvantaged people.”
Lawmakers who voted against the bill also noted the fee goes directly into the pockets of retailers, rather than being collected by the city and used for public benefit.
With additional reporting by Donny Levit.