In Brooklyn, I lived across the street from a 24-hour natural products bodega (boy was I spoiled). I’d stop by in between regular trips to the Park Slope Food Coop, which banned plastic bags this summer. Everyone who worked at the corner store knew me as their neighbor and that I’d never take a plastic bag, but still as they were ringing me up, almost always their hands, like a reflex, would reach for the bag. And that is so the culture of the city. Besides regular grocery shopping, people often run into these small stores or get take-out, or carry leftovers home all using plastic bags. And this is just the food aspect of use. How about all of those shopping bags? I could take you through seasons of retail chain H+M’s bag designs simply upon memory from seeing them everywhere.
When I first heard about Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to charge city residents six cents for every plastic bag used at the register, I thought, great, finally we’d be bringing a solution that’s worked in Europe to cut down plastic bag usage to a major U.S. city! Plastic bags let’s remember are not biodegradable and are made with petroleum. And New Yorkers sure use a lot of them, an estimated 1 billion per year. Los Angeles is even trying to ban them by 2010.
On the heels of Mayor Bloomberg’s GreeNYC initiative whose goal is to help the city to reduce carbon emissions 30% by 2030, officials are still considering what types of plastic bags to add the fee and how to collect it. The proposal is still a work in progress and would be a fee and not a tax, the distinction being that this initiative would need approval from the City Council, not the State Legislature. But still, a tax is how it is being interpreted. What this environmentalist didn’t realize at first, is how very angry this could make people. The New York Times article touches upon this, but it wasn’t until I read the comments on a Daily News article that I could see the depth of this as our country’s economy is tanking. It’s true that City officials estimate that the fee could generate $16 million a year, something that upsets people as they struggle to pay for food and now they are feeling they will be literally nickeled and dimed on top of that.
This isn’t a simple issue. In Ireland, a larger tax of 33 cents a bag resulted in usage dropping a full 94%. Six cents seems more reasonable to me for people to afford. But what if it’s too low, doesn’t result in changed behaviors, while also angering people? We’ll have to see. I support the fee for the long-term health of our planet, but wonder about its effectiveness during our current tough economic times.