During its last meeting of the legislative session Wednesday, the New York City Council passed a landmark ban on the use of gas in new buildings. Another bill aimed at reducing the use of plastic utensils with take-out and delivery orders was never called for a vote.

Jeanmarie Evelly

During its last meeting of the legislative session Wednesday, the New York City Council approved a landmark bill banning gas hookups, including for heating and cooking, in new construction of buildings—becoming among the largest city in the United States to do so, and taking a major step towards reducing the city’s reliance on fossil fuels

Another environmental bill, meanwhile, which sought to reduce the city’s use of single-use plastics, fell to the wayside. The “Skip the Stuff” bill—a measure banning restaurants from including utensils, extra food containers and condiments with takeaway and delivery orders, unless requested by the customer—was approved by the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing Tuesday afternoon in a nearly unanimous vote.

But the legislation was not brought to a vote by the full Council on Wednesday, essentially killing the bill for this year. City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who sponsored the legislation, is leaving office because of term limits this month, though another lawmaker could potentially take up the issue again during the 2022 session, which will start in January.

“The time to address the climate crisis is now if we want to leave a habitable planet for the children of the city,” said Diana Ayala, chairperson of the Committee on Consumer Affairs and Business Licensing at the Tuesday meeting, where she and seven other committee members voted in favor of advancing the Skip the Stuff bill. “For consumers, a major way to reduce our waste and be more environmentally conscious is to reduce our reliance on plastics.”

Starting in July 2023, the bill would have fined companies found to be in violation $100 on the first offense, $200 on the second offense and $300 for additional offenses in the same year.

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Councilmember Kalam Yeger was the only member to vote against the measure, citing that he would have preferred that the legislation allow for a warning for first offenses after July 2023, giving business owners more time to adjust.

“Otherwise, the agencies are encouraged to run around and build the city’s budget on the backs of small businesses in the city,” he said.

Eric Goldstein of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who worked on the bill, said he’s confident it will be passed in the future.

“It was stranded at the two-yard line, but the Council staff tells us that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t move,” he said. “I think that all of the folks who were supporting it have every intention of coming back and making it a priority issue to kick off the new Council session.”

The legislation would have been one of several such bans on single-use plastics in the city and state. Earlier this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order requiring that city agencies submit an annual written report showing its compliance with a 2019 order banning the purchase of single-use plastic foodware, including forks, spoons and straws, with city funds.

READ MORE: Low-Income Housing in NY Burns Fossil Fuels More Than Other States, Study Finds

At the state level, a measure prohibiting hotels from distributing toiletries in plastic bottles will become law on Dec. 21, unless it is vetoed by Gov. Kathy Hochul before then. The measure goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2024 for hotels with 50 rooms or more, and a year later for smaller hotels.After that, offenders will be issued a warning and given 30 days to comply with the law. Failure to do so will result in a fine of $250 for the next offense, and $500 for every subsequent offense. Fines collected related to enforcement of this bill will be deposited into an environmental protection fund.

These measures are the latest in a line of legislative actions aimed at reducing single-use plastics. Last month, a city law banning plastic straws, stirrers and splash sticks—unless requested by the customer—went into effect. In October 2020, the state began enforcing a ban on plastic bags. Since then, the Department of Environmental Conservation has collected more than $27,000 in fines for businesses not complying with the law.

Phasing out gas 

The ban on new gas hookups in buildings will also be phased in in the coming years. After Jan. 1, 2024, applications for construction of buildings under seven stories will be denied if they exceed emissions limits set by the legislation. The law will go into effect for buildings taller than seven stories after July 2, 2027.

“We have literally made personal environmental responsibility a letter of the law, but buildings are responsible for nearly half of the greenhouse emissions that are destroying our Earth every day,” said Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, one of 29 sponsors of the bill, during the meeting.  

Critics of the legislation have called instead for a hybrid heating system. At a hearing in November, National Grid, along with the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater New York, submitted testimony against the legislation as written, citing the need for a combination of heating options. 

Critics including National Grid and the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY) also cited the potential for increased utility costs for consumers. 

“We have real concerns that, as envisioned, these bills may result in increased energy costs for customers, which will have a disproportionate impact on low- and fixed-income families,” said Bryan Grimaldi of National Grid in his written testimony. 

In a statement after the bill’s passage, REBNY President James Whalen said the city’s real estate industry “committed to working with policymakers to develop proven policies that meaningfully reduce carbon emissions from the built environment.”

“While we appreciate that the efficient electrification of buildings is an important component of realizing these goals, these policies must be implemented in a way that ensure that New Yorkers have reliable, affordable, carbon-free electricity to heat, cool and power their homes and businesses,” he said.

A study this year by Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health found that in 2017 (the year with the most recent available data) 1,940 New Yorkers died prematurely due to particulate matter that can be linked to burning fossil fuels in buildings.Off those deaths, 75 percent were directly related to residential—not commercial—buildings, the report found.

Another study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Drexel University published earlier this month found that a citywide phase out of heating oil #6, as part of the 2012 Clean Heat Act, directly resulted in lower levels of fine particles, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide—all pollutants directly linked to health issues.

The legislation also calls for a study into the effectiveness of heat pump technology by June 1, 2023. This system, which is growing in popularity globally, works by transferring heat energy from the outdoors into an indoor space during the winter, and transferring hot indoor air outdoors during the warmer months. 

The city’s Housing Authority completed a pilot heat pump system at the Fort Independent Houses in The Bronx last year.  

Liz Donovan is a Report for America corps member.