While everyone is freaking out about how President Donald Trump might wreck the environment, one group of elected officials is wrecking the environment: New York City Democrats.
Early this week, the Assembly – led by a representative from the Bronx and consisting of mostly New York City members – voted by a wide margin to keep the city from reducing its plastic pollution. The Democrats were dismissive of science and contemptuous of their own voters. With “progressives” like this, who needs Trump?
Only the New York state Legislature could take this uncontroversial idea and twist it into a radical scheme to harm New Yorkers.
For nearly a decade, since the Bloomberg era, the city has been trying to cut down on plastic bag use. New Yorkers use 9 billion plastic bags a year – making up two percent of all waste – most only for a few minutes. Unlike paper, metal, glass and higher-quality plastic, these bags aren’t recyclable. The city spends $12.5 million a year – and requires 7,000 truck trips – to cart 91,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills. Loose bags clog up sewer drains and end up in waterways, where fish and birds eat the plastic particles.
Last year, the New York City Council passed a bill, sponsored by lower Manhattan’s Margaret Chin and Park Slope’s Brad Lander, and signed into law by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The law, set to take effect Feb. 15, is straightforward: Supermarkets and most other stores – except liquor stores – must charge customers at least five cents for each carryout plastic or paper bag. The stores would keep the money, so it’s not a tax. People who use food stamps and WIC benefits are exempt.
The goal is not for store owners to profit, but to use free market economics to get people to change their behavior. A nickel isn’t a lot of money. But it has been enough to get people to stop using plastic bags across the globe. In England, plastic bag use plummeted by 85 percent after the government applied a fee in 2015. When you charge people for plastic bags, they will nearly stop using them because the bags have no economic value to them.
Only the New York state Legislature could take this uncontroversial idea and twist it into a radical scheme to harm New Yorkers. But that is what lawmakers have done, using their power over the city to prohibit the fee. The bill is now in the hands of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but lawmakers likely would override his veto.
The obstructionists fighting for the right to mindlessly pollute aren’t upstate Republicans; they are downstate Democrats. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, of the Bronx, allowed the Assembly vote, and state Sen. Simcha Felder of Borough Park, a Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans, got the bill through the state Senate.
During the debate, Democrats in the Assembly aired alternative facts to support blocking the bag fee. Several lawmakers, including Assemblyman Charles Barron of East New York, focused on how the fee would be a burden to the poor, ignoring the food stamp exemption and widespread reusable bag giveaways.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, of Borough Park, raised the specter of New Yorkers getting sick from bacteria lurking on reusable bags. Yes, you should throw your reusable bags in the wash with your clothes once in a while, and yes, you should put chicken and other leaky meat into a free meat and produce bag at the supermarket. And you probably ought to not keep your reusable bags in the bathroom with you when you are ill with diarrhea. But studies tying reusable bags to food poisoning have been debunked.
Several lawmakers, including Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, proposed a ban on plastic bags rather than a fee, preferring not to give consumers a choice at all. Several members also noted that some New Yorkers reuse the plastic bags for dog poop and for garbage. That’s great. It means the bags have a free market value for these individuals, who could feel free to pay their nickel for a product that is worth something to them. That is the magic of pricing something; it gives people a chance to decide how much that thing is worth.
Lawmakers also brought up outlandish practical problems: people will forget their bags, or they’ll have too much to carry. Yes, you’ll forget your reusable bags once in a while. If you’re not on public assistance and thus exempt from the fee, anyway, paying an extra nickel or two is not the end of the world. As for people with large families: toting groceries in flimsy plastic bags that don’t hold much and feature handles that cut into your hands is an inefficient way of carrying a lot of stuff. But if some parents prefer it, fine. Just as having more kids means paying more for food and clothes and housing and college, it will also mean paying a little more for bags.
The worst display of cognitive dissonance was lawmakers’ assessments of New Yorkers’ willingness and brainpower to respond to the fee. Lawmakers were breathtakingly open about judging their constituents by gender and class. Hikind repeatedly brought up “old ladies” who would balk. Why elderly women are less interested in saving a nickel and in participating in the civic cause of reducing waste was left a mystery. Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon said the seniors with whom she has spoken were “firmly in favor” of the fee. Representatives of several poorer districts, including Barron and Assemblywoman Maritza Davila, implied that their constituents weren’t smart enough or interested enough in the planet to participate. “These constituents will suddenly be forced to pay or learn a new way of grocery shopping overnight,” Davila said. Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz one-upped her, saying the teenage store clerks in his Queens district were too dumb to count plastic bags properly.
Lander, the co-sponsor of the bag fee in the City Council, was less dismissive of poorer New Yorkers’ capabilities and interests. “Everyone is capable of remembering to bring reusable bags,” he said during their debate last spring. And as City Councilman Stephen Levin said, “It is not something that people are gonna be incapable of doing.”
Seven of the Democrats who voted to keep 9 billion new bags flowing into New York’s landfills every year said they were environmentalists. The definition of being an elected environmentalist, though, is that you enact policies that require companies and people to change their behavior in some small or large way, often through an economic incentive. Democrats claim to care about global warming. But how would they ever enact a carbon tax if they can’t allow a nickel fee on one type of carbon, a plastic bag made out of petrochemicals? The sacrifice required here is far more modest than that needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions. A New Yorker could change their routine slightly, or pay $36.50 to buy two plastic bags every day for a year.
Lawmakers who voted against the fee in the Assembly 122-15 and in the state Senate 43-16 cannot call themselves environmentalists. New York City’s Democrats just demonstrated that they don’t care.
This piece originally appeared at City & State's New York Slant