Good idea? Perhaps. Bad law? Yes!

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When the state legislature and then Gov. Andrew Cuomo blocked a New York City bill that would have introduced a 5 cent fee on plastic bags, critics denounced their actions as bad for the environment—for billions of plastic bags would continue littering the streets and clogging the landfills —and as undemocratic—for what business does Albany have meddling in New York City’s efforts to fight pollution? 

All true, at least to some extent. But that doesn’t change the fact that the city bill was horrible.

Plastic bags that litter the city’s streets and parks are an eyesore and a hazard for the environment. Take a stroll around Van Cortlandt Park or along Broadway when the snow melts—and you are likely to see plastic bags pushed around by the wind or caught in the tree branches. Many people in Riverdale and Kingsbridge wouldn’t mind paying the occasional 5 cents for a small convenience, such as a plastic bag for their groceries, if they knew the money was going to some program that protects the environment. 

But many people would have a lot more objections to shelling out 5 cent fees when they know that not a single cent of that would go to a single environmental program of any kind. Instead, all of the accumulated 5 cent payments for plastic bags were to add to the revenues of supermarkets and grocery stores. Over the course of a year, the 5 cent payments for plastic bags would have amounted to $100 million in extra revenues for grocery stores, under the New York City bill. 

Many people would object that profits for supermarkets or not, the bag fee was still a good idea if it encouraged shoppers to cut down on their use of plastic bags. That may be true as well, but we doubt that people who drive gas-guzzling SUVs—the cost of gasoline notwithstanding—would grow environmentally conscious and would refrain from buying an extra plastic bag for 5 cents. Instead, it would be the poorer New Yorkers who would be forced to decide whether to pay an extra 5 cents for a plastic bag—or to save the nickel toward their grocery budget. 

True, the poorest New Yorkers, those who use food stamps, would have been exempt from the nickel fee under the city bill. Others could rely on some of the reusable bags the city has been giving out free of charge. But this justification holds even less water than a discarded plastic bag. Here is the catch: Most people reuse plastic bags to bag their trash. The poorest would have been exempt from the nickel fee, but many others would have been forced to pay—either for the 5-cent plastic bags or for garbage bags. 

Forcing people to buy plastic garbage bags instead of reusing plastic grocery bags isn’t environmentally friendly. It is friendly to the plastic industry and to grocery stores that would be allowed to collect extra fees. 

The state legislature and then Cuomo used an imperfect measure to block an even worse municipal bill. But the whole debacle produced one good result: After signing a state bill that overturned the city one, Cuomo announced the establishment of a statewide task force to develop a unified plan for fighting the pollution produced by plastic bags. 

He promised such a plan and corresponding statewide bill by the end of the year. That bill, when it’s drafted, should make sure that any fees New Yorkers pay for plastic bags would fund environmental programs, not provide extra revenues to supermarket chains. And New York City should keep pressure on Albany to deliver on its promises.  

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