The return of the New York City plastic-bag fee

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Plastic bag in a Williamsburg tree. (Jonathan Percy via Flickr)
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Five years after Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried, unsuccessfully, to levy a fee on plastic bags, a group of progressive council members is trying all over again.

Today, Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander and Manhattan Councilwoman Margaret Chin unveiled legislation that would charge customers at least 10 cents for every plastic or paper bag supplied at stores.

“It can be easy to forget the impact we each have on the environment—an impact that really adds up when you have a city of eight million people,” said Lander in a statement. “The truth is, there are a lot of times that we don’t really need a plastic bag."

The bill has seven co-sponsors but has yet to earn the support of Christine Quinn, who as Council speaker determines which bills come to the floor for a vote.

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"The bill will be introduced on Thursday, then referred to the appropriate committee, where it will undergo full legislative review," said Quinn spokesman Jamie McShane, in an email.

Bloomberg's proposal never went anywhere, but this new legislation differs from Bloomberg's in a couple of significant ways that might render it more appealing to business owners: Unlike the mayor's 6-cent proposal, which allocated a penny to the retailer and a nickel to city coffers, this proposal allows business owners to keep the entire 10-cent fee.

It also applies to both plastic and paper bags, thereby addressing one complaint that arose back in 2008.

"[M]any grocers and retailers oppose the tax, fearing an increased demand for the paper bag, which they point out is more expensive and, because it is bulkier than plastic, requires more space and trucks to deliver," reported the Times back then

Also, it comes with a lot of exemptions: restaurants and street vendors would be exempted, as would produce and meat bags in grocery stores, and all purchases made using food stamps.

Every year, the city spends $10 million to ship 100,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills.

"Plastic shopping bags are an enormous problem for New York City,” Ron Gonen, the city's deputy commissioner of sanitation for recycling and waste reduction, told the Times earlier this year.

They also litter trees, drains, and beaches, and gum up the works of trash-sorting machines.

Plastic bag restrictions are in no way unprecedented.

Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles have banned plastic bags. And Washington, D.C. charges five cents for every plastic and paper bag.

UPDATE: Plastic bag manufacturers are, unsurprisingly, opposed to the proposal. The American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents manufacturers like Hilex Poly and Unistar Plastics, sent over a statement that said, in part: "The proponents of this bill are misinformed and largely rely on science that has been hijacked by environmental activists. A grocery bag tax pushes shoppers toward less sustainable options, like reusable bags, which cannot be recycled, are made from foreign oil and imported at a rate of 500 million annually."