Opinion: Big Plastic wins, environment loses

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.

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11 thoughts on “Opinion: Big Plastic wins, environment loses

  1. This automated corruption is a big fail. Thankfully, Cuomo wasn’t included in the payout scam so he squashed it. This was nothing more than a ‘tax” on the poor. Most of whom use those bags as garbage bags when finished using them to carry home their goods. Yes, I know it wasn’t a tax but that just makes it worse. That’s where the automated corruption comes in. The grocers profit over 90% on the bag and then give a portion of it back to the politicians who voted it in. CORRUPTION at it ‘s finest. Brad needs to go! If you want to cut back on plastic bags go after the culprits that create the mess. That would be commuters and tourists who order a sandwich or a couple of coffees and throw the bag away only to be blown around. don’t punish the poor person who uses it to get groceries home and then re-uses it as a garbage bag.

  2. I guess the fact that NYC voters polled were 63-34 AGAINST the bag tax is completely lost on Holyman.

    The real question is: Why would the city council vote FOR this when their constituents were clearly opposed to it. Did they learn nothing from the term limits debacle?

    This has nothing to do with “Big Plastic”. It’s about elected representatives advocating for their own agenda rather than respecting their districts’ wishes.

    • This might sound weird to you, but…Council Members sometimes do the right thing, whether or not it polls well. Compare how Obamacare polled in 2011 (negative) vs. now (positive). If we voted on every law, we’d be a much different country/city. That’s why we elect officials, Mac.

      • We elect officials to REPRESENT us, not to decide for us what the “right thing” is. If your constituency is overwhelmingly against a certain bill, you should respect their wishes. You’re an elected representative, not a kindergarten teacher.

  3. Poor people don’t have the luxury to waste money, When there is a bag fee, they bring bags from home so they don’t pay. That’s the bottom line, so the lies you hear from Carl Heastie, Tony Avella, Simcha Felder and the IDC are just noise. Bag fees worked well in DC, LA and countries around the world. New York, a richer place than any of the above, would be just fine. Lobbyists bought the law from Felder and Avella and got it rubber-stamped by Heastie, who gets donations from waste disposal companies. They have a profit motive to keep polluting and pumping out trash. So there won’t be a law reducing the waste of trash and taxpayer money until there is a light shined on the corrupt gang in Albany.

  4. I was interested to see John Catsimatidis, the owner of Gristedes, being interviewed on NY1 about the plastic bag fee and he was against it. He said that the bags can be recycled and that Gristedes does recycle the bags if people bring them back. He said something to the effect that collecting the five cents fee would be more trouble than it was worth and he saw it as an imposition on the poor and elderly.
    There is a plastic bag recycle bin just inside the entrance to our little Associated and I always take a handful of old bags with me when I go out and just pop them in that recycling bin. I, too, use them as garbage bags, but always have more than I need and that’s where the recycling bin at Associated comes in handy. I don’t understand why the recycling of these plastic bags isn’t pushed more aggressively like the way the bottles and cans recycling program is.

  5. Unlike our councilman, I don’t see these bags littering the city streets. (What neighborhood does he travel?) They are used by people to get rid of their food waste and other instances where something needs to be bagged in a sanitary way. This is the way, I use these bags. I don’t throw them away on the streets.

    • There are quite a few around Stuyvesant Town (especially since Management removed the garbage bins from the perimeter) and there are quite a few of them in the trees. I think it is the people who buy take-out food who throw them away in the street. I’ve seen them do it. In fact, I’ve actually seen one person who hangs out in front of my building toss his paper plate, coffee cup and bag though the railings and onto the property! I’ve told him off about it and he denies he did it, even though I actually saw him. He hangs around every day when the weather is warm. There are quite a few people like he, unfortunately.

      • Not what I see. You actually see people throwing plastic bags on the street? And on the trees in Stuy Town??? Photos, please! Sure, there may be some New Yorkers who are slobs like that, but generally these bags are used in a different, more practical way, not by throwing them on the trees. I cheer the fact I don’t have to pay 5 cents per bag at the supermarket.

        • I have seen people toss those bags away. As for the trees, they get blown into the trees by the wind. Just look up at the trees and you will see shredded plastic and entire bags stuck in them. In fact, there are plastic bags stuck in trees all over the city. Just look up.

          I am glad that the five cent fee is not going to be enforced, but I do think that some people toss the bags away in the street. I have actually seen people with take out food do that. I don’t need to supply you with photographs. Just open your eyes.

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