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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Can New Yorkers give up their plastic bags?

A proposed fee for all plastic bags in

A proposed fee for all plastic bags in the city was just stopped by the state. The fee is on hold, but the city still wants to cut down on disposable bags. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

The woman waiting for the free bags at a Bravo supermarket might have been out of a public service announcement for recycling.

She was already carrying two reusable bags, both green, one with a zipper, the other over her shoulder, a box of Entenmann’s donuts peeking out. When she used plastic bags, she said she always brought them to Rite Aid to recycle. The woman, who gave her name as Sue, showed up right on time to the Jamaica store because she’d seen on the internet that the city would be giving out free bags.

The occasion? A city-wide 5 cent plastic bag fee, which had been scheduled to start February 15. In preparation, city Department of Sanitation teams were holding giveaways around the city, offering bright orange reusable tote bags, made of recycled polyester and meant to ease the transition away from that pesky throwaway plastic.

According to the Department of Sanitation, New Yorkers use more than 10 billion single-use bags a year. Most of those end up in landfills and the plastic bags take thousands of years to decompose.

In theory, it’s an easy problem to solve. But for now, the city’s attempt has been placed on hold.

Will New Yorkers relinquish their bags?

The fee aims to address the waves of bags that accumulate unwanted in our trees, beaches, gutters, parents’ cabinets. In other cities like Washington and Los Angeles a small charge has been found to change behavior, prodding residents to use reusable bags.

In NYC, the proposal has been controversial. The State Senate passed a bill last week attempting to block New York City from doing what it wants to — and on Friday, Speaker Carl Heastie said the Assembly would go along with their Albany colleagues, delaying the February 15 rollout until January, 2018, while legislators work with city leaders to find a solution. In a statement, Heastie mentioned “the financial burden as well as other factors.”

The city law was carefully written to get around state roadblocks — revenue from the fee goes back to stores, rather than to the government, which would have been a tax needing state approval. And measures like the bag giveaway and an exemption for those using food stamps were meant to ease issues for low-income New Yorkers. That doesn’t appear to have been enough for Albany.

Some of the potential growing pains were visible at the Jamaica Bravo.

Francisco Fernandez, 49, the store’s manager, watched a woman and two children carry away groceries, multiple bags in all of their hands. He estimated the charges — almost a dollar, not nothing.

From his perspective, he envisioned “complications,” as he delicately put it: People asking cashiers not to double-bag items, then getting mad just outside when the bags broke. People asking for one of the store’s cardboard storage boxes to carry their loads.

He wasn’t sure if customers were particularly aware of the coming fee.

But the DSNY team tasked with changing that was soon setting up a table next to Fernandez’s cashiers.

DSNY’s Naika Colas, an outreach specialist, and Estefany Salas, an AmeriCorps member, burst into the Bravo with bags in tow. Bags of bags, bright and orange and pleasant looking, clean and smelling of that, well, fresh bag smell.

“It’s supposed to represent a berry,” said Salas, 22, indicating the giveaway wrapped into a bundle within itself, a clip in one end for easy belt or pocket transport.

The bags went quickly with shoppers in Queens. (Check them out yourself at another DSNY event or by signing up here.)

Colas, 30, said they’d given away some 500 in an East Harlem event last week. The city made 400,000 bags and has given away “thousands,” according to a DSNY spokeswoman.

“Free bags,” Colas and Salas intoned pleasantly, and that was usually all that needed to be said; even for shoppers less intent than Sue, the early bird.

Fernandez, the manager, came over and inspected the merchandise: sturdier than the ones the store used to sell, he said approvingly. “These are cool.”

Two children walked by and eyed the goodies silently, clutching handfuls of ice cream bars and juice packs. “You can give them to your mom,” Salas said. They took one each.

A tough push to change behavior

Colas and Salas and the rest of their five-person team have been planning and executing the bag events around the city for the last few weeks. They’ve been focusing drives on low-income areas, Colas said, which if successful would alleviate some of the issues raised by state legislators.

For now, barring a veto from the governor, the city will have to go back to the drawing board and do more to get this worthwhile proposal past state opposition and over local speed bumps.

Outside the Bravo, three women exited after some light shopping, all holding the orange bags. These were no happy customers, though.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Joann Wright. “When you do a big shopping trip, one bag’s not going to do you any good.”

The other women agreed. Wright, 60, said the 5 cents would add up over time, and was miffed that it would go to the store. “Everybody gets money except for us.”

For half a block down Guy R. Brewer Boulevard, the women grumbled about the fee, clutching their orange totes in hand.

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