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Cities Should Charge For Disposable Shopping Bags

Mamaroneck, a neighboring town here in the New York City suburb of Westchester County, banned plastic bags in 2013.

I realized that the hard way when I walked out of a pharmacy and was only a few steps outside the door when the brown paper bag they'd given me tore apart at the bottom, scattering its contents across the parking lot.

If I'm completely honest, there have been times when I've specifically avoided going to grocery stores and pharmacies in that town since then. Besides, I don't throw away plastic bags -- my gray tabby, Buddy, produces more poop than seems physically possible for an eight-pound animal, and plastic shopping bags make good receptacles when I'm cleaning a litter box that looks like the aftermath of a desert battle in the Gulf War.

But now our county government is leaning toward banning plastic bags outright, and neighboring New York City is considering a bill that would tack a five-cent surcharge for each plastic bag a customer uses.

City and county governments in New York, especially in the lower part of the state, often take their cues from New York City. When the city banned smoking in bars, Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau counties followed soon after. When the city started going after tax-dodgers who were ordering cigarettes online, local governments did the same.

So I hope that, instead of an outright ban on plastic bags, my county once again looks to New York City, where the city council seems ready to strike a balance between protecting the environment and recognizing the realities facing the city's eight million people.

"For too long, plastic bags have clogged our storm drains, littered our green spaces and tangled in our trees," City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito wrote in a statement, according to Crain's. "With this legislation, we can take a step toward a cleaner and sustainable city.”

A fee on plastic bags instead of an outright ban makes sense, and doesn't cause unnecessary hardship for people living in an urban environment where there is no such thing as driving to the grocery store and stashing the groceries in the trunk on the way home.

In Manhattan and some neighborhoods in the boroughs, grocery shopping involves trekking blocks away and making the return trip with a week's worth of groceries in your hands. It forces you to make smart choices, like buying a water filter instead of lugging a case of spring water six blocks back to your apartment, and buying only what you need and forgo items that'll sit in your fridge or cupboard for months.

At the same time, as Crain's New York Business points out, the New York City bill's sponsors have made other concessions so the bill doesn't unfairly burden the city's working poor. City council members cut the original proposed 10-cent bag fee in half, and customers using food stamps won't be subject to the fee. The city will also try to get the ball rolling on the transition to reusable bags by handing a limited number of them out to residents for free.

There are a few other exceptions as well, like deliverymen for restaurants, who are a vital part of the city's economy and can be seen pedaling their way through Manhattan neighborhoods, won't be charged for using plastic bags. Likewise, pharmacies will be permitted to use plastic bags without charging customers a fee.

There's only one thing I'd change about the common sense, compromising New York City bill. As it's written now, stores will keep the extra money from the bag fees, and won't be required to keep track of how many bags they "sell" or how much money comes in through the fee. Five cents doesn't seem like a lot, but it will add up quickly in a city that sees billions of retail transactions a week.

Brad Lander, a Democratic city councilman from Brooklyn and major force behind the bill, told Crain's that New York City spends more than $12 million a year to bring plastic bags to landfills. The extra revenue from the bag fees should be given back to the city, put in a special fund that can't be raided for other purposes, and allocated to beautification and park maintenance projects. That would bring things full circle in a commonsense way.

Giving people a choice also avoids the resentment over sanctimonious politicians legislating everyday behavior, a charge leveled at former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg often during his political career, as he took aim at everything from large fountain sodas to fatty snacks. If a customer has to walk half a dozen blocks back to his apartment he can pay the bag fees, but maybe next time he'll bring reusable bags with him to the store. If another customer lives upstairs from a bodega and doesn't mind using paper bags, she can do that.

Giving people options and allowing them to voluntarily opt-in strikes the right balance between respecting the environment and avoiding a nanny state where there are laws governing the minutiae of everyday life.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: Crain's New York Business (2), Mamaroneck Daily Voice, Westchester Magazine / Photo credit: Save The Bay

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