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Back to the Sack: New Yorkers reactions to a plastic bag fee

In the last couple of weeks, there have been quite a few articles documenting the reaction New Yorkers have had to the proposed plastic bag fee. I thought it would be interesting to sit with these differing points of views. I have pulled out just the quotes from the different newspaper articles I ran across since Bloomberg made his announcement.

Here are the negative reactions:

“Come on. This is a joke, right?” asked John Sanchez, a 40-year-old porter from Prospect Heights. “Six cents a bag? It’s ridiculous.”
“We walk from the subway and do our shopping, picking up four, five, six plastic bags along the way,” said George Ganthier, a retired Prospect Heights resident. “At six cents a bag, it would really add up. And remember, we’re already paying taxes on the stuff we buy!”

Plus, added Claudia Corwin, president of the board of directors at the Concord Village apartment complex in Downtown, “Brooklynites already recycle the plastic bags.” “We use them over and over and then throw our garbage in them rather than buying garbage bags,” she said.


At the 2000 N.Y. Deli on Second Avenue at 103rd Street in East Harlem, the owner, Sammy Ali, 30, said his customers would balk at paying for plastic. “No way,” Mr. Ali said on Thursday. “They ask us for plastic bags for free as it is. When we say no, they curse us out. They demand a bag for a 25-cent bag of chips.”


As the 30-year-old mother of two walked out of ShopRite in New Dorp earlier today with a cart full of bright yellow plastic bags, she put in her two cents about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s busted-budget proposal. “It’s horrible,” she said, loading her groceries into her minivan. “It’s a horrible thing to do.” Ms. Morgan said the city was capitalizing on the one thing New Yorkers relied on most — convenience. She added that getting her 2-year-old and 4-year-old daughters out of the house and to the grocery store took enough energy that she doubted she could remember to bring her own bags.
But Bill Fani, the owner of the Met Foodmarket on Hylan Boulevard in Grasmere, said not only is the city long overdue for an educational component, but he said it would be unfair for the city to ask shoppers to pay for bags before investing money into an educational campaign. “I think it’s just another tax the city is putting on people who really can’t afford it,” he said. “Try to educate the people of Staten Island about how plastic bags are hurting the environment. Then, if that fails, you say you did your best and it’s time for everybody to pay.”


“It’s stupid – it doesn’t make sense,” said Arshi Syed, a Fresh Meadows resident who shops at Waldbaums on Francis Lewis Boulevard. As she struggled to load her car with eight heaving grocery bags, she admitted she has been thinking of switching to recyclable cloth bags. “The thing is, we live in an apartment and plastic bags are more convenient. I don’t think this is fair,” she said.

Filomena Gamez often stops at Key Food in Forest Hills on her way home from work and said she is doubtful she will remember to carry reusable bags with her each time. She hopes the plastic bag fee will prove helpful to the environment but questions the City’s timing. “I don’t think it’s fair to continue adding new fees while we’re in a recession,” Gamez said. “I can’t imagine having to pay six cents for a plastic bag when groceries are already as expensive as they are – a gallon of milk is almost $4! And most of the time, one plastic bag isn’t sturdy enough to hold a lot of groceries, so they double bag it, and now we’re up to 12 cents. It’s ridiculous.”


Janice Thomas, 47, a nanny in Brooklyn, said she used them to wrap items for her care packages to relatives in Granada. “You fold the stuff up and put them in the bag for shipping,” she said.
But customers like Bernadette Ojeda, 37, a mother of six, said charging 6 cents was “not right.” “It doesn’t make sense to have to carry an empty bag around,” she said of the idea of bringing her own bag. “That’s what the plastic bag is for.”


“Bloomberg is a piece of work,” Clemelda Gipson, 39, said outside a D’Agostino grocery store in Chelsea. “Food is expensive and now we have to pay for the bags, too? They should try to come up with ideas and solutions and not just more taxes.”


Here are the positive reactions:

And that can’t happen soon enough for Joe Holtz, the general coordinator at the Park Slope Food Co-op, which banned plastic bags and now requires its 15,000 members to bring their own bags, buy a reusable bag for 99 cents or use one of the leftover cardboard boxes that are left near the checkout counter. “If you really want to be serious about getting rid of plastic bags, the fee needs to be higher,” he said. “Unlike the Co-op, which is a members-only group, the mayor can’t just ban plastic bags, so the only choice he has is to discourage their use through a fee or tax. “Six cents, 12 cents, 18 cents and then 25 cents — eventually, you have a virtual ban on the bags,” said Holtz.


“I wouldn’t mind paying [the fee] as long as the mayor takes all the money and puts it into the schools,” said Marianne Tober of Brooklyn Heights.

But that’s exactly why William Harrigan of South Beach thought it was a good idea. “Maybe we need to do things like that, to make people think twice about what they’re doing,” he said, toting his groceries in a green cloth bag that he brought from home. “I’m for anything that deals with helping the environment. If you can, you try to make a mental note to bring them.”


“I’ve heard the same law working well in so many other countries and I’m pretty surprised it hasn’t been implemented here yet,” said Penny Anna Makras, who shops at Key Food on Newtown Avenue in Astoria. “I support Bloomberg’s efforts. It’s better for the environment and if I don’t want to pay the fee then I’ll bring a reusable bag. If the law passes, I’ll remember to pack my bag – I don’t want to give away any more of my money.”


On rainy days at Luna Deli, a bodega in East Harlem, some customers demand plastic bags even without a purchase. “They ask for bags to cover their shoes,” said David Cortes, a store clerk who said he sometimes charges 5 cents per bag in such cases because “the store pays for those bags — they’re not a gift.” Mr. Cortes said he had a front-row seat to the waste: Customers ask for bags even for cigarettes, and to wrap beer cans “so the police don’t see them drinking.” “It just creates more trash,” said the clerk, who said he agreed with the proposal.


“I think it’s a good idea. There is way too much plastic being used at the grocery stores anyways,” said actress Denise Lute. “We need to be eco-conscious. If I’m charged a nickel it’ll make me take my own bag.”


And here the New York Times tried to capture the complexities of the issue:

Steven Thrasher usually carries two reusable cloth bags for any impromptu shopping. At the Ikea store in Brooklyn the other day, he gladly forked over $1.18 for two of the store’s big blue bags, made of durable plastic for repeated use. But even an environmentally aware New Yorker like Mr. Thrasher cannot shake himself loose of the everyday disposable plastic bag… (continued:

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posted November 26, 2008 at 9:58 am

The best and most permanent changes come from shifts in mindset. We began our company in NYC in 1989 and, until recently, the conversation about eliminating single use bags (paper or plastic) was held inside of the natural and organics products industry. Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to enact a fee on the distribution of plastic bags shows just how far this movement has come.
We saw the shift begin with “An Inconvenient Truth” and the conversation about global warming. Suddenly there was a sense of urgency in the mass media and in members of our communities to do something, to make some difference.
Single use plastic bags are an easy thing to target. By their nature, they’re wasteful. They’re manufactured to be thrown away, made from a petroleum-based product, and require huge amounts of energy to fabricate and transport. The fact that they don’t biodegrade and eventually become plastic dust seals their fate in the minds of legislators and citizens who are seeking to make positive environmental changes.
There is no denying the negative impacts of plastic waste on our natural environment. Flotillas in our oceans the size of Texas, comprised of plastic bags and other plastic waste, is compelling. Seeing plastic bags stuck in trees, clogging our storm drains and literally choking our wildlife has moved many to action, both legislative and voluntary.
There is a debate as to whether plastic is worse than paper bags. After all, trees are cut to produce paper bags, it is a water- and energy-intensive process and the carbon footprint may actually be higher because of the weight and associated shipping requirements. The jury’s still out on which is worse, paper or plastic and there are ample resources on the Web to research these issues. Our recommendation is “neither.”
When the stores stop ordering and distributing single use plastic bags (or charge for them) consumers will find alternatives. In Austin, TX, a yearlong voluntary education campaign to reduce plastic bag use has resulted in consumers recycling 20% more bags at stores than in the previous year and in stores reporting a 40% drop in bag distribution to customers. The ripple effects of this program are significant; waste is reduced and citizens are taking an active role in bringing about positive change.
An all out plastic bag ban, like the one in China, may not be feasible in many parts of the US. New York’s $.06 per bag fee is under consideration and drawing mixed reviews. What we do know is that when Ireland enacted their $.33 tax on bags a few years ago consumption dropped by 95% in one year. Granted, this is a much higher fee per bag but it’s clear that the pain of paying outweighed the perceived inconvenience of “bring your own” and it soon became the new reality; a shift occurred.
If New York City enacts the plastic bag fee it will surely reduce the consumption of single use plastic bags. Folks who need the bags will either pay or find alternative solutions. The bottom line is that the passive distribution of massive amounts of plastic and paper bags will slow as people begin to bring their own bags to shop.
Time and again, we’ve heard that once people stop accepting plastic bags they become aware of other excessive plastic packaging of their foods. They shift consumption patterns, insisting on less packaging and purchase whole foods more frequently. So not only will fewer plastic bags enter the waste stream, we, as a community, will be contributing to the health of our city and our world. In effect, we’ll be cleaning the planet, one bag at a time.
Sharon Rowe, Founder & CEO
Eco-Bags Products, Inc., Ossining, NY

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Greg Zwahlen

posted November 26, 2008 at 10:33 am

“We walk from the subway and do our shopping, picking up four, five, six plastic bags along the way,” said George Ganthier, a retired Prospect Heights resident. “At six cents a bag, it would really add up.
Yes George, it would add up . . . or you could stop taking a bag for each stick of gum you buy. Those flaps in your clothes? They are called pockets. We can have an educational campaign to inform you about their nature and function.

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posted November 28, 2008 at 12:30 am

Thanks so much for gathering these thoughts Kirsten, it’s really great to see the range of reactions on the issue. I think for me, I’d really want to see something more along the lines of Ireland’s 33 cent fee, which, as a previous comment mentioned, reduced plastic bag usage by 95%. A six cent fee is just low enough so that a good bulk of people won’t change their behavior and we will just have a better funded city that still consumes plenty of plastic bags.
Bloomberg, while he has shown his chops as a truly visionary mayor when it comes to urban environmental issues (see congestion pricing, PlaNYC), I think in this case he’s going for revenue streams rather than real environmental impact. At the same time, he’s really moving the overton window on this issue quite dramatically considering there’s been no pressure on him from people to do this.

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posted November 29, 2008 at 12:08 am

I have to wonder, really, if taxing plastic bags at 6 cents a pop nationwide, people still using them 95% of the time, and rolling the bags tax revenue into building renewable energy wouldn’t, ultimately, net a better environmental impact that deep sixing plastic bags.

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posted November 29, 2008 at 12:37 pm

This reminds me a lot of when they proposed the ban on smoking in bars (I know, I know… it’s different). People from both sides up in arms…. and when it passed people just got used to it. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal now. I think the same thing will happen if and when this becomes law.

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posted December 1, 2008 at 1:41 pm

I just got back from London where a lot of teh vendors in Borough market charge for plastic bags. I even witnessed a man in front of me ask for a plastic bag and then change his mind and use his backpack for puchases after finding out there was a 10pence charge. This will work…though I do agree that it should come with a heavy educational component. People who complain about having to carry around a bag simply need to understand their options. I carry around a tiny folded up bag in my purse all the time.

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