Cuomo moves to bag plastic bags across the state

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All those plastic bags sullying the streets, waterways and landfills could soon be an environmental headache of the past.

A little more than a year after he blocked what would’ve been a nickel surcharge on plastic bags, Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill just after Earth Day last month intended to outlaw single-use plastic bags by next year.

“The blight of plastic bags takes a devastating toll on our streets, our water and our natural resources,” Cuomo said, in a release. “We need to take action to protect our environment. As the old proverb goes, ‘We did not inherit the Earth, we are merely borrowing it from our children.’ And with this action, we are helping to leave a stronger, cleaner and greener New York for all.”

The bill comes as a result of a January report from the state’s plastic bag task force laying out the environmental impact of plastic bags as well as measures to reduce single-use bags, and steps the state could take to cut down on pollution and protect natural resources.

Yet, it’s uncertain how the bill could fare in the legislature, where leaders of the Assembly and the senate had opposed a previous city’s ordinance imposing a 5-cent surcharge, although the Assembly had been generally supportive of a ban. 

Yet this measure likely would face a tougher test in the Republican-run senate.

Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democratic councilman who led the city’s push to implement the nickel fee, told The New York Times Cuomo’s bill looks like thinly veiled “election-year, Earth Day politics.” And while it’s unclear whether the threat from Cuomo’s primary challenger — Cynthia Nixon — may have in part inspired the measure, Nixon suggested hours before Cuomo introduced the bill her candidacy may have nudged the governor left on some issues where he’d previously wavered, according to published reports.

Neither Cuomo nor Nixon returned multiple requests for comment.

Politics aside, Dart Westphal — who serves on the board of the nonprofit Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, and is director of the environmental studies program at Manhattan College — said Cuomo’s bill is a step in the right direction, regardless of motives.

“When people say,  ‘He’s only doing it for politics,’ well, OK, he’s a politician,” Westphal said. “That’s what they do. They look around at what their constituents want, and then when they want to get re-elected, they do the things their constituents want. 

“To me, that’s a good thing. It’s a response to pressure from the public. I don’t care what his motivation is as long as he gets rid of some of the plastic.”

In fact, Westphal stands by any action aimed at cutting down on single-use plastic.

“You really need that plastic thing on the top of your Starbucks cup, or wherever you get your coffee?” Westphal asked. “You’re going to drink it right now. Why have that thing? And the little straws, and all the things, whatever you can do to get rid of it, I’m in favor of it. Single-use plastic is very bad.”

But the clock is ticking, and with the primary in September, “one hopes the governor is trying to get something to happen before the legislature closes up shop at the end of June,” Westphal said. 

Robert Fanuzzi, vice chair of Community Board 8’s environment and sanitation committee, said the board had yet to discuss the bill, so he couldn’t offer an opinion.

“We should certainly have an open discussion on this, because it does have a history,” Fanuzzi said. “We supported legislation brought by the city council and it wasn’t executed at the state level, so we’re happy for the chance to revisit our previous position and debate further.”

After Cuomo overturned the city council’s 2016 bill that would have levied a 5-cent fee on plastic bags, CB8 adopted a resolution last November urging city and state lawmakers to eliminate plastic bags to the maximum extent possible.

“As far as my personal opinion, there’s too many plastic bags floating around in our waterways,” Fanuzzi said. “It does incredible environmental damage, and I think we should be promoting reusable bag use as much as possible.”

Yet, a number of environmental nonprofits — including some local ones like Bronx Climate Justice North — argue a ban alone isn’t enough. 

They are calling on Cuomo to also place a fee on paper and reusable bags, with a portion of the amount collected dedicated to state parks, environmental improvement projects, and reducing potential impacts to low- and moderate-income communities.

“An effective state policy should be modeled after municipalities that have successfully addressed this issue,” according to a May 9 organizational letter Bronx Climate Justice North signed onto. “A ban/fee hybrid is the most successful model of bring-your-own-bag policy in the United States.”

Los Angeles County achieved a 94 percent reduction in single-use plastic bags, according to the letter, including a 30 percent reduction in paper bag use. That came after implementing a ban on thin plastic bags with a 10-cent fee on other bags, including paper.

In contrast, Chicago simply banned plastic bags, not placing a fee on paper, prompting many stores to switch to slightly thicker plastic, and label them as “reusable,” the letter claims. That resulted in more waste and undermined efforts to curb single-use bag consumption. 

Meanwhile, municipalities in Westchester and Long Island chose to ban plastic bags with no fee component on other disposable bags, and failed to see lasting consumer behavior change, according to the letter.

But as far as the argument between imposing a fee, banning bags — or both — Westphal isn’t one to quibble, so long as action is taken. 

“Nothing’s going to be perfect,” Westphal said. “Do something. Do anything. But something has to be done. We can’t go on like this.”

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