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NY state officials attempt to undo NY City’s bag fee

June 10, 2016 Updated 6/10/2016

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NY state officials attempt to undo NY City's bag fee

New York State Senate Felder

In New York, dueling bag bills have pulled single-use plastic bags back into the headlines, while neighboring New Jersey is continuing its attempt to have the first statewide plastic bag ban.

New York City, already infamous in the plastics industry for attempts to ban expanded polystyrene foam, in May passed a 5-cent fee on both paper and plastic retail bags. Sponsored by Democrat Melissa Mark-Viverito, speaker of the New York City Council, supporters welcomed the fee as a way to cut down on litter and landfill space. Opponents fretted that the fee would disproportionately impact low-income and minority shoppers, though shoppers buying groceries with government benefits would be exempt from the bag fee. And retailers — who were set to keep the nickel for every bag they handed out — were not complaining.

Complaints came instead from the state house in Albany, where even Democrats jumped to block the bag fee.

Sponsored in the Senate by Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with Republicans, and in the Assembly by Michael Cusick, a Staten Island Democrat, state legislators quickly passed a bill that would forbid any city in the state from imposing fees or taxes to discourage the use of plastic bags.

Felder’s bill was approved, 36-22, within weeks of being introduced. The Assembly still needs to vote on its version. And for the ban on bans to become law, it would have to be signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who has not commented on the likelihood of doing so.

The fracas has pushed plastic ban bans, fees and their use in general back into the press, with The New York Times editorializing against state legislators’ effort to ban bag fees, and even the Daily News editorial board opposing the move by state legislators, calling it a violation of the city’s right to govern itself and saying state lawmakers had been swayed by plastic bag industry lobbying efforts.

Banning bag bans isn’t the only plastics-related item the New York State Senate has taken up recently. Legislators on June 7 also approved a bill that would require large and chain retailers to install bins to collect plastic bags for recycling.

Sponsored by Sen. Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat who also caucuses with Republicans, it would require retailers of at least 10,000 square feet, or 5,000-square-foot stores that are part of a chain, and grocery stores of 5,000 square feet or more, to have the bins, in part because bags and film are not part of most city-wide recycling programs.

There is, however, no companion bill to Avella’s the New York Assembly.

In neighboring New Jersey, the race to become the first to enact a state-wide plastic bag ban is still on — as California remains in limbo until the November ballots are counted — with a bill that would bar retailers from handing out any free bags at all. Each of Hawaii’s counties ban plastic bags, but that is not technically a statewide ban.

The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex) would prevent grocery stores, drugstores and large retailers (over 2,000 square feet or part of a chain with at least 10 locations) from giving out paper or plastic bags and require a 5-cent fee for single-use bags starting in June 2017. Retailers and state tax coffers would each get 1 cent of the fee, with the rest going to a state fund for testing drinking water for lead.

It cleared the committee on a 5-1 vote but still has to get the approval of the full Assembly and, eventually, the state Senate, where no companion bill has been introduced so far.

New Jersey has seen annual attempts to ban plastic bags since 2008 but efforts have routinely stalled.

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