No Backspace:
It’s Not the Poor who are Organizing Against a NYC Plastic-Bag Law

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One of the big environmental pushes in recent years in NYC and nationwide has been to get rid of the single use plastic bags handed out for free in supermarkets. In NYC, employees are often mad if you ask them not to double bag it.

Unfortunately, Mayor de Blasio for more than a year has stalled on saying how he wants to deal with plastic bags, given the opposition time to launch their counterattack.

The plastic bag industry and their supporters have increasingly used poor people as their last line of defense – we can’t impose a fee on plastic bags because it would be crushing on poor people. When the poor aren’t being blamed for all of our society’s problem – such as budget deficits, crime, litter – they are being used as the poster child to block needed reforms.

The cynic in me wonders whether any of the critics have found themselves the recipients of financial donations from the plastic container industry. This is a common practice by companies such as Coke, who historically has funded organizations such as the NAACP who campaign against environmental proposals such as the bottle bill. In a recent article in Salon, Dr. Thomas Farley, former NYC Health Commissioner, outlined similar campaign efforts by Coke and Pepsi against Bloomberg’s proposed soda tax.

New Yorkers use 5.2 billion carryout bags per year, the most of which are not recycled Plastic bags account for over 1,700 tons of residential garbage per week in NYC. New York City pays an estimated $10 million to transport 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills in other states each year.

After reviewing the various legal challenges to getting rid of plastic bags, NYC advocates and council members decided to propose legislation for a 10 cents per bag fee rather than an outright ban. The fee would be kept by the stores who sold the bags, not the city (so therefor not legally a tax, which would require state legislative approval). The fee would encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags. Other cities that have enacted a fee have found it very effective in reducing the number of single use plastic bags.

No Backspace is City Limits' new blog featuring a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics.

No Backspace is City Limits' new blog featuring a recurring cast of opinion writers passionate about New York people, policies and politics.

I worked for three decades running a statewide anti-hunger program. When we asked our guests what the solution was to poverty, they said living wage jobs, better education, and more affordable housing. Plastic bags don’t belong in that conversation. In the City Council, the plastic bag law was written by Councilmember Brad Lander, a former anti-poverty advocate when he led the 5th Avenue Community. After talking to groups such as the Food Bank and the Coalition against Hunger, he included an exemption for people who made purchases either with SNAP (food stamps) or WIC. Thus most purchases by low-income New Yorkers would be exempt.

The argument is that poor people, unlike other New Yorkers, would not be able to change their shopping habits and therefor would often get stuck paying the 10 cents fee (despite most of their purchases being exempted). This is a rather patronizing attitude.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior, about climate change and monarch butterflies, the working class heroine can’t grasp why the do-good activist wants local residents to sign a pledge to adopt more “sustainable shopping” habits. Her point is that low-income people already shop that way – buying second hand clothes for instance – because they can’t afford to do otherwise.

Poor New Yorkers would adapt far more quickly to a 10 cents fee on plastic bag than wealthier city residents. Low-income New Yorkers for instance are far more likely to bring their own shopping cart to the store since they can’t afford a car or taxi; adding a few reusable bags would not be a major change. They also don’t throw the redeemable cans and bottles into the garbage; instead, many try to survive by picking up the deposit containers discarded by their wealthier neighbors.

People carried food items around for thousands of years in cloth bags and other containers before the plastic bag was invented 50 years ago. The plastic bag is just one answer from the petrochemical industry to the question as to what else in the world can be made out of plastic. With climate change bringing an end to the era of fossil fuels, it is time to send the plastic bag the way of the dinosaurs.

One thought on “No Backspace:
It’s Not the Poor who are Organizing Against a NYC Plastic-Bag Law

  1. Charging a fee for plastic bags would be a major inconvenience for shoppers. It literally is nickel-and-diming middle-class shoppers and would add time at checkout. Most re-use the bags at home for storage or to line small wastebaskets. I live near a large Stop-n-Shop and have never seen loose bags in the parking lot or surrounding blocks. This is a non-problem. And having to drag around the plastic bags back to the store is just more 3rd world thinking.

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