ALBANY, N.Y. – A battle over plastic bags in New York City could ultimately force a change in your grocery store routine.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week signed into law a measure blocking a 5 cent fee on plastic bags in New York City, despite the city council approving the tax last year.
But in signing the bill, Cuomo acknowledged the problems caused by plastic-bag pollution, creating a task force to come up with a statewide plan to deal with it.
Now, environmental groups are hoping the move could open the door to a statewide fee on plastic bags – or even an outright ban.
“Our true goal is to reduce plastic pollution in the environment,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Not only is it bad for the environment, it’s litter. It kills marine life. And it costs a lot to clean up.”
New York City’s fee would have required customers to pay 5 cents for every disposable bag they take from most stores.
Supporters of the fee said it was meant to deter shoppers from using plastic bags and encourage them to bring reusable ones.
It had been set to take effect Feb. 15, but Cuomo signed a bill blocking it days before. The Legislature approved it early this month
Cuomo said his major issue with the bill was the collected fee remained with the merchants, which he estimated amounted to a $100 million windfall.
But in an approval message, he acknowledged New York and the nation are “struggling with the environmental impact of plastic and paper bag waste.” On Wednesday, he called disposable bags a “significant threat.”
He said he will soon create the task force, which will include members picked by the Legislature, with local governments and stakeholders also represented.
He gave the task force until the end of the year to “conclude with a report and proposed legislation.”
“It is a statewide problem,” Cuomo said Wednesday in Manhattan. “You drop a plastic bag in the water today, in the Hudson River, and it winds up in Albany in a few days. It is clearly a statewide issue and beyond just New York City.”
Unlike a bill that stalled last year, the bill signed by Cuomo only applies to New York City -- not to similar fees approved by other municipalities.
Cuomo doesn’t have to look far to see the effects of a plastic-bag ban.
His hometown of New Castle, Westchester County, just implemented a plastic-bag ban on Jan. 1, with paper bags subject to a 10 cent fee.
The idea was to push the use of reusable bags, said New Castle Supervisor Robert Greenstein.
Generally speaking, Greenstein said the reaction in his suburban town has been positive.
“There’s always going to be some people that are unhappy, but the reality is they’ve been few and far between,” he said. “We’ve done many other things that have elicited a lot more complaints.”
Still, any sort of statewide fee or ban would need approval from the state Legislature, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of blocking the New York City fee.
Sen. Simcha Felder, D-Brooklyn, helped lead the push against the New York City fee, calling it a “undue financial burden on low- and middle-income New Yorkers.”
“It's the last thing they need,” he said last month.
Cuomo, meanwhile, said any potential plastic-bag fee should go toward cleaning up plastic waste.
The New York City Council didn’t have the authority to make that happen, which is why the fee revenue would have remained with grocers and merchants.
“If there’s going to be a fee, that fee should go to government to clean up the environment and the damage done by the bags,” Cuomo said.