New York City Council Adopts Environmental Fee on Paper Bags

In a move to throttle down on waste, litter and pollution, the New York City Council has adopted legislation that would place a five-cent fee on paper carryout bags distributed at supermarkets and other retail outlets in the nation’s largest city.

By a vote of 38 to 9, the Council adopted the legislation as a complement to the recently enacted New York State ban on carryout bags made of plastic. Taken together, the state ban on plastic bags and the city’s five-cent fee on paper bags represent one of the most significant waste reduction initiatives undertaken here in years. 

The City Council legislation and the new state law are expected to cut the number of single-use carryout bags that are tossed into the garbage or end up as street litter or waterway pollution by billions of bags a year and encourage shoppers to utilize reusable bags instead.

Billions of paper bags will be kept out of waste stream, as City Council adopts five-cent paper bag fee; NYC is distributing free reusable bags.

According to the City Council, about 10 billion plastic bags are used in New York City annually, and the bills main sponsors—Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Brad Lander—rightly feared that if the city didn’t act, the state’s ban on plastic bags would simply trigger a massive shift at retail outlets from plastic to paper carryout bags.

The proceeds from the paper bag fee are to be divided between the state and the city. Three of every five cents will be deposited in the state’s Environmental Protection Fund and the remainder will go to the purchase of reusable carryout bags for city residents, with priority given to distribution in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.

If the legislation is signed by Mayor Bill DeBlasio, who has previously expressed his support, the fee would take effect beginning March 1, 2020.

The environmental burdens of single use plastic bags are increasingly well-known. These petroleum-based conveniences are used for minutes but remain in our environment for a century or more. They litter our streets, hang from our trees, clog storm drains, and are flushed into our waterways where they contribute to ever-growing amounts of plastic in the marine environment.

But the manufacture, transportation and disposal of paper carryout bags also entail significant environmental costs. Processing rigid stands of timber into flexible, printable, smooth paper requires an intensive chemical and mechanical effort after a tree is harvested. The virgin pulp and paper industry is one of the world’s largest generators of hazardous air pollution, sludge, and solid wastes. The transportation of timber and finished paper products like paper bags hundreds of miles, from forests to retail outlets, consumes larges amounts of energy and generates significant global warming emissions.

The new City Council legislation comes on the heels of the statewide plastic bag law that was adopted by the State Legislation and Governor Andrew Cuomo as part of the frenzied state budget process earlier this month. The state law did not limit paper carryout bags, as NRDC and our environmental colleagues had urged, but authorized cities and counties to enact local ordinances that would place a five-cent fee on such paper bags.

The swift enactment of this city legislation is due at least in part to the environmental leadership of City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. He agreed to fast-track the legislation, so that the five-cent fee on paper bags could take effect on the same date as the statewide ban on plastic carryout bags. Having both laws take effect simultaneously should reduce public confusion and make implementation of both laws easier.

Passage of the New York City paper bag fee law is likely a bellwether for action by other cities and counties around the state. Already, local elected officials in Westchester and Albany Counties are planning efforts to advance paper bag legislation in their jurisdictions.

About the Authors

Eric A. Goldstein

Senior Attorney and New York City Environment Director

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