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New York City Council Passes Plastic Bag Bill

 

 

 

 

Published: January 10, 2008


The stash under the sink grows inexorably: bags from Duane Reade and D’Agostino, bags from Home Depot and the health food store. Wadded up, stuffed one inside the other, they explode out of the cabinet as you wonder how you’ll ever get around to using all of them.

 

If you’re one of the many New Yorkers who worry about throwing away plastic bags but seem only to acquire more and more, then help is on the way.

The City Council on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring large stores and retail chains to collect and recycle plastic bags they give to shoppers. New York is by far the largest American city to enact so broad a measure to limit the environmental impact of the bags. Altogether, each year the country is estimated to use 86 billion bags, which end up blowing down city streets, or tangled in the stomachs of whales and sea turtles, or buried in landfills where, environmental organizations say, they persist for as long as 1,000 years.

Plastic bags are a source of environmental anxiety for New Yorkers, who use one billion a year, Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn said in an interview after the vote. City dwellers consider recycling “more and more” important, she explained, but until now have not had a ready means of recycling the bags.

But under the new bill, which had a surprising amount of support from retailers and plastic-bag manufacturers, stores that give the bags to customers must provide recycling bins for the bags in a prominent place in the store. The legislation applies to stores of 5,000 square feet or larger, as well as all branches of chains with more than five locations in the city.

Shoppers will be invited to deposit plastic shopping bags as well as other stretchy plastic materials, such as dry-cleaning bags. Stiff plastic bags with cardboard bottoms are out, since they are considered reusable.

Consumers can drop off bags from any store, not just the one where the bin is located. “It would be terrible if you had to have your Duane Reade pile and your D’Agostino pile,” Ms. Quinn explained. “That would be a nightmare.”

The Department of Sanitation, which picks up plastic bottles, cans and newspapers, will not collect the bags. Stores will have to contract to have them removed, most likely by companies that will recycle them into new plastic bags or buy them to make into other products, such as weatherproof decking.

Stores will also have to ensure that the bags they distribute have printed messages urging customers to return them to stores.

The legislation passed 44 to 2, and will take effect six months after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg signs it. The mayor has not expressed any objections.

When Ms. Quinn and Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr., a Queens Democrat, introduced the bill in October, it seemed likely to become a political football.

Ms. Quinn, a Manhattan Democrat who is considering a mayoral run in 2009, immediately faced criticism from John A. Catsimatidis, the Gristedes supermarket magnate, who is eyeing a mayoral run on the Republican ticket; he called the proposal a case of too much regulatory meddling.

Mr. Catsimatidis’s criticism soon died down, and the Food Industry Alliance, which represents 750 supermarkets in the city, backed the bill after pushing through some changes.

“We already have a lot of members who have taken up this cause,” said Patricia Brodhagen, vice president of public affairs for the Alliance. ShopRite, Stop & Shop, Food Emporium and others already collect bags voluntarily. Whole Foods, which is not a member, promotes reusable bags and offers small discounts for returned bags.

The “no” votes in the Council came from two of the three Republicans, Councilmen Vincent M. Ignizio of Staten Island and Dennis P. Gallagher of Queens.

Other cities, including San Francisco, have banned plastic bags altogether. But Ms. Quinn said that could increase the use of paper bags, which give off methane as they decompose, another environmental hazard.

She said her office had received anxious calls from New Yorkers asking if they could continue to use the bags as garbage bags or to pick up after their dogs. Absolutely, she said: Recycling will not work by itself, and other tactics like using canvas bags are just as important.

An unlikely supporter was Progressive Bag Affiliates, a trade group that represents most American makers of plastic bags.

“New York has really become a pioneer,” said Dave Vermillion, a spokesman for the group, which includes companies that make recycled bags.

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