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Council divided over plastic bag surcharge bill

New York City Council Member James Vacca states

New York City Council Member James Vacca states his opposition to a plastic bag surcharge during a hearing at City Hall on Wednesday, November 19, 2014. The New City Council held its first hearing on the bill that would enforce a 10 cent surcharge on plastic bags Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

A proposal to charge New Yorkers for using plastic or paper bags at stores divided council members Wednesday during the first public hearing onthe legislation.

The bill, introduced by City Councilman Brad Lander, would charge a dime for every disposable bag a customer uses at a store as a way to reduce pollution and encourage shoppers to use reusable bags.

"We've seen them in our streets, our sidewalks, our storm drains ... and the good news is New Yorkers can do something about it," Lander said at a rally before the City Hall hearing.

Many other elected officials and community groups, however, bashed the plan for making New Yorkers cough up more cash unnecessarily.

"The fee is a tax in sheep's clothing," Councilman James Vacca said during the Sanitation Committee hearing.

The grocery, supermarket and retail stores would keep the money from the surcharge and bags used to hold produce, meat and other non-packaged food would be exempt. Restaurants wouldn't be affected.

Lander and environmental groups, like the Nature Conservancy and Natural Resources Defense Counsel, contend the bags, which aren't biodegradable, are a financial burden to the city since it costs the sanitation department $10 million a year to transport the bags to landfills.

Other cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. enacted similar laws and saw a decrease in plastic bag use.

"This is a well thought out approach and it is a common sense matter," said Councilman Corey Johnson, who is one of 19 the other council members who support the bill.

The measure is still six votes shy of passing, and the mayor hasn't been fully committed to backing the bill. Nine council members, including Vacca, Eric Ulrich, Rory Lancman, joined with an opposition group consisting of organizations such as the Black Leadership Action Coalition (BLAC) and the American Progressive Bag Alliance.

There's no timetable for a vote on the bill.

The opponents said they too are concerned about the environment but said Lander's solution shouldn't be the only option the city mulls.

"There was no consideration of the moderate and low income people at all," Bertha Lewis, BLAC's leader, said at a rally against the bill before the hearing.

Although Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia, said the plastics are problem since there is no cost effective way to recycle them and acknowledged the benefits of a surcharge, she didn't give a full endorsement for the bill.

"Before I can comment specifically on the merits of [the bill], I would like to learn more from the city's stakeholders," she told the committee.


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