By State Senator Brad Hoylman
The winner in Albany’s repeal of the City’s “bring your own bag” law earlier this month wasn’t your average shopper who would have been charged 5 cents per plastic bag – although opponents of the law would like you to believe that. No, the biggest beneficiary in the year-long showdown between the State Legislature and City Hall over plastic bags was Big Plastic — the plastics industry itself.
Big Plastic is represented by two shadowy groups that have spent millions nationwide to defeat bag laws just like New York City’s, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and American Chemistry Council. ALEC, a consortium of right-wing state legislators, works as a clearinghouse for model pro-business state legislation, ranging from weakening labor unions to loosening environmental regulations, like rolling back restrictions on plastic bags. ALEC is bankrolled by the American Chemistry Council, which also lobbies for Big Plastic on behalf of petroleum and plastics industry companies like Shell, Exxon Mobile and DuPont.
Using a phony grassroots organization called the American Progressive Bag Alliance, ALEC and the American Chemistry Council have teamed up to challenge plastic bag ordinances like New York City’s in states across the country, including California, Georgia, South Carolina, Idaho, Wisconsin and Arizona. They hire P.R. firms and lobbyists, file lawsuits, and spend millions to defeat anti-bag laws. In Seattle, for example, they spent $1.5 million to defeat a bag law in 2009.
It’s not yet clear what Big Plastic spent in Albany to win the last-minute nullification of the New York City bag fee, which was set to go into effect last week but now has been put on hold indefinitely. It’s a good bet that Big Plastic spent big. Public records show some of Albany’s most powerful lobbyists were paid $309,418 in 2016 alone to defeat the NYC bag law. This year’s lobbying expenses could even be higher. And at least one community group that testified before the City Council and the State Senate in opposition to the fee admitted to having received payments from Big Plastic.
Big money appears to have trumped the data. If other jurisdictions are any indication, then the NYC bag law would have worked. In Ireland, after the government imposed a 15-cent fee, bag usage fell by 94 percent. In Washington, D.C., a 5-cent fee reduced plastic bag use by 60%. Other cities that have successfully implemented a plastic bag fee include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Jose, California, not to mention Long Beach, L.I., and Suffolk County, New York.
Which begs the question, if a plastic bag fee is good enough for Long Beach and Suffolk County, why not New York City? It’s especially galling that Albany would override New York City’s home rule on this issue without a proposed alternative to deal with a problem that accounts for 10 billion excess bags annually costing New York City $12 million in waste disposal and cleanup.
Galling, but sadly not surprising. After all, Senate leaders have openly questioned whether climate change is human-induced. And the committee charged with protecting our state’s environment, the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, met just five times over the six-month legislative session last year. The majority of bills it passed merely preserved the status quo of existing laws or concerned hunting and fishing, while it failed to act on over a hundred bills that would promote natural resource conservation, clean energy, and environmental justice.
Now that the State has preempted the city on plastic bag waste, it’ll be up to Albany to set forth a statewide policy that puts the environment – and New Yorkers — ahead of the plastics industry. In this instance, given the State Legislature’s interference in New York City’s law, it’s reasonable to be skeptical. Still, the Governor has taken a leadership role and announced a statewide task force to develop a uniform plan for addressing the problem, which gives me hope that Big Plastic won’t win again.