Don’t trash NYC plan on plastic bags

Imagine a New York State Legislature that respects home rule and leads by making good policy. That’s not what happened this week, when the Assembly and Senate decided to stop NYC’s effort to charge five cents for plastic bags at retail stores.

Instead of promoting good environmental policy, lawmakers crushed the plan with vague claims of constituent objections, while offering no alternate plan. In particular, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s knee-jerk decision to stop the bag fee was based on unproven concerns that minority and low-income communities would be negatively impacted. Perhaps he should consider that those communities also care about the environment, and would change their behavior as the fee is instituted.

State lawmakers are wrong to wade into this issue and delay the fee until at least 2018. Gov. Andrew Cuomo should veto the legislation and work instead to ban the bags altogether. The city’s efforts to stop plastic bag waste are laudable — residents use as many as 9 billion disposable bags a year. Most end up in storm drains, waterways or on beaches. They harm birds and fish. They have no upside. And, bag usage dropped in cities where fees were adopted.

NYC’s plan exempts people on food stamps, and spares bags for takeout, and for wrapping medicine, meat and vegetables. And NYC has handed out reusable bags for free.

City residents’ objections are understandable, but other cities like Washington, D.C., overcame similar resistance. Public education efforts are important. Perhaps state lawmakers should use some of the dollars in their campaign accounts for reusable bags with their names in big letters and hand them out in their districts. Experience shows that residents deal with a bag fee by changing their behavior. And that’s what this is about. By vetoing the bill, Cuomo would allow the fee to take effect on Feb. 15. Then, state and city officials should study the impact, and remedy unintended problems. Stores can remind customers and make reusable bags available, since they keep the fee.

Residents have every opportunity to do the right thing, and never pay a nickel. Day by day, it’ll make a difference.