Bagging the Big Apple

Posted by Matthew Brian Hersh on November 8, 2008

In Amsterdam, at a Super de Boer, imagine my surprise when I had to pay for a grocery bag because I didn’t bring my own. In the U.S., I buy those biodegradable poop bags for my dog, so I don’t need the plastic grocery bags. I bring canvas to the store, etc. Yeah, I try to be “green” when I can. I think more and more people these days do.

But when I left the Super de Boer, I was amazed. I don’t live in an area, or a state, for that matter, that would employ such a progressive-minded initiative. I do know that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been on a lengthy campaign to get people to recycle their plastic grocery bags, or bring their own from home, but like Europe, in an ever-shrewd way to use taxes (or fees, in this case) for the public good, Bloomberg is now proposing a bag fee. Joe Biden, eat your heart out — now here’s a tax that we can feel patriotic about.

According to The New York Times:

City officials estimate that the fee could generate $16 million a year, a figure that Mr. Bloomberg would no doubt appreciate, given the lingering and concussive effects of the global economic crisis on the city’s economy.

The article continues:

If the proposal passes, New York City would follow the lead of many European countries and become one of the first places in the United States to assess a so-called plastic bag tax.

It’s a fantastic plan, and every city should engage in such bold plans, but does it go far enough? In New York City, cigarettes approach $8 per pack, and guess what? Smoking is way down. A study by the city’s health department in 2007 indicated a 20-percent decline in smoking since 2002. Why? A combination of strategic advertising, a smoking ban in public places like bars and restaurants, and that cig tax were all attributed to that decline.

New York City, in 2006, also banned artery-clogging artificial trans fats at all restaurants. Why? Because public health is in the utmost interest of any government (and not just public health that keeps a locality from getting sued, like bad sidewalks, etc.)

So what’s my point? There are always going to be the “keep your laws off my trans fat” people, but isn’t one of the roles of government to protect the citizenry, from both exogenous and endogenous forces? I think so. And here’s the other thing: the city’s real intent is to not make money from this fee. The intent is environmental: people would stop using plastic bags, and any subsequent revenue from a bag fee would dry up. Further, $16 million is a mere whiff of New York City’s $50 billion municipal budget. This ain’t about more money to line the pockets of the folks at City Hall.

But it’s always baby steps with these laws. The cig tax was slow to increase; no one noticed a flavor difference when their food lacked trans fats; and, alas, the bag tax is too small, and needs to hit the consumer. We’ve squandered three decades of environmental warnings, and these are issues our local governments can control. Just like implementing aggressive recycling plans, plastic grocery bags are things of the past we need our local governments to help to drive home that message.

The Times article notes that following Ireland’s implementing its 33-cent bag tax in 2002, plastic bag use dropped by 94 percent. Ninety-four percent. Now that’s the stuff!

The article quotes local grocery store owners saying that customers would be outraged by paying for bags. Perhaps, but how long would it take for a customer to start bringing a bag? Once? Twice? It wouldn’t take long.

We don’t have long. Bag here, bag now.

About the author more »

Matthew Brian Hersh proudly served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics. He displays many of the trappings of a New Jersey sports fan: dispirited Mets fan, former Nets fan before they left the state, and normally satisfied Giants fan. Hersh lives in Highland Park, NJ with his wife and two children.

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