NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that he is forming a statewide task force to address the environmental impact of plastic bags, after blocking New York City Council’s fee on non-reusable shopping bags just hours before it was supposed to take effect.
Under the city’s plan, retailers were supposed to start charging customers for using paper or plastic bags rather than bringing a reusable bag. But Cuomo on Tuesday approved a measure to forbid the city from placing any fees on disposable shopping bags until at least next year. The state Assembly and Senate both voted to block the 5-cent fee last week.
As CBS2’s Vanessa Murdock reported, some shoppers were none too disappointed that the fee has been blocked.
“Zabar’s for years has been giving you 10 cents off if you bring a bag back,” said Barbara Mates of the Upper West Side. “Why don’t they do that?”
Some store owners don’t like the idea of the bag fee either.
Kenny Patel’s store goes through 2,000 plastic bags a week. If the fee went into effect, he’d make a profit of 3 cents per bag, but in his eyes, it wouldn’t be worth it.
“We make profit, but the customer is not going to be happy if I charge them,” Patel said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio had championed the bag fee as a way to reduce litter and protect the environment. The city planned to distribute hundreds of thousands of reusable shopping bags to help with the adjustment and shoppers using food stamps would not have to pay the fee.
Both sides agree the widespread use of disposable bags poses an environmental and financial problem with 1,700 tons of plastic bags tossed out each week in New York City.
“These bags are plastic, they’re made of petroleum products, fossil fuels, that’s a problem right there,” de Blasio told NY1. “What happens? They go into landfills. Taxpayers pay a lot of money for those bags to end up in landfills.”
According to Cuomo, disposal costs the city $12.5 million each year. But the governor Tuesday called the fee “deeply flawed” because it would allow store owners to keep the profit.
“To me, it is unconscionable to give the store owner a $1 million windfall,” Cuomo said.
But City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said the point of the fee is to encourage people to change their habits.
“What we’re trying to do is motivate and incentivize people not to use plastic bags,” she said.
The mayor has said the plan would have changed the way New Yorkers shop and create waste without hurting their pockets.
“I think the 5-cent fee on the bags was taken out of context in the discussion in Albany,” he said. “The whole idea was to change behavior. We were going to great extents to ensure people had permanent reusable bags for free. It was not going to be a burden on people.”
But Cuomo said the statewide task force will “develop a uniform state plan for addressing the plastic bag problem” by the end of the year.
“It is a statewide challenge,” he said. “As such, a statewide solution is the most appropriate way to address this issue.”
Republican Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Smithtown) applauded the moratorium.
“We take these issues very seriously and will continue to work collectively toward solutions that preserve our cherished natural resources without placing new burdens on hardworking people,” Flanagan said in a statement. “If allowed to go forward, this onerous bag tax would have hurt low- and middle-income residents the most, making it even more difficult to make ends meet in what is already the most expensive city in the world.”
But council members slammed lawmakers for what they said was an affront to home-rule.
Councilman Brad Lander (D-39th), one of the sponsors of the bag fee legislation, said council members spent two years researching, promoting and creating a process to address the 91,000 tons of solid waste caused by plastic bags in the city each year.
“We fought plastic bags, and for now, plastic bags won,” he said. “They are stubborn and toxic forms of solid waste. They never biodegrade, so they pollute our trees, oceans, and landfills forever. And they are hard to dislodge from the state Legislature, too.”
“It’s costing the city $12 million a year, we could be using that money for more senior services in my opinion,” Councilwoman Margaret Chin (D-1st) said.
Lander says what’s unjustifiable is Albany steam-rolling a city law, WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman reported.
“The real fundamentals of democracy in New York State here,” Lander said.
“This looks like a special law of the kind that New York State constitution prohibits,” Lander added. “So we’re going to have to look at that first.”
Some New Yorkers said action is needed against plastic bag waste.
“They are a scourge on our trees, on our fences, on our cityscapes ,” said Mark Diller of the Upper West Side. “They clog our storm drains.”
Professor Ester Fuchs of the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs surveyed trash on the streets of New York City with her students.
“Forty-one percent of the trash on the streets is plastic,” Fuchs said. “And 14 percent of that plastic is plastic bags.”
Fuchs said New York City must reduce plastic bag usage now, and she said it is a simple environmental fix with a big impact.
“We are not ahead of the pack on reducing plastic bags on our streets,” she said. “We’re following cities like San Francisco and San Jose; and Long Beach, Long Island and Nassau and Suffolk County; not only that – South Africa; Bangladesh!”
The City of Seattle, for another example, has banned plastic carryout bags and charges a minimum of 5 cents for paper plus sales tax. Stores keep the fee.
“Five cents to the store owner doesn’t bother me,” said Ian Donald of Park Slope.
Donald said banning plastic bags altogether is fine by him too. That is the law in Los Angeles, where a paper bag runs 10 cents but is not subject to sales tax. Stores keep the fee for complying.
In Washington, D.C., the charge is 5 cents per bag. Since the fee started there, the number of plastic bags on the streets and waterways dropped by 60 percent.
The City of Chicago repealed a ban on plastic shopping bags this year after only 16 months. But beginning this month, Chicago instituted a new 7-cent-per-bag tax on paper and plastic bags.
“With dysfunction in Washington, now more than ever, we need to empower our local governments to adopt common sense solutions, not block them.” said Greg Young, City of Gloversville supervisor and co-coordinator of Elected Officials To Protect New York.
Environmental groups also rebuked lawmakers for delaying efforts to limit reliance on petroleum-based products.
“Let us be clear: a task force that does not lead to a robust statewide law is not an acceptable consolation prize,” New York League of Conservation Voters President Marcia Bystryn said. “We take Gov. Cuomo at his word that he will work with the Senate and Assembly and act expeditiously. The League looks forward to participating in the process and holding our state government accountable for enacting the best possible policy solution.”
The state Senate postponed the fee until at least January of next year allowing the City Council another year to revisit the issue, and devise another plan to curb the use of plastic bags.
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