Last week, our Seattle-bred writer told New Yorkers to stop being babies about the five-cent fee that the City Council had voted to impose for the use of plastic takeout bags. That plea fell on deaf ears, because on Tuesday, Governor Cuomo blocked implementation of the Bring Your Own Bag Law for at least a year. The Lower East Side’s own Margaret Chin was among those who dropped a W-T-F bomb, insisting that “carryout bag fees are the right policy” and that Cuomo’s move had quashed a measure that she and her colleagues in City Council had “democratically adopted” after slogging through “two years of hearings, reviewing evidence, reusable bag giveaways, and public debate.”
But for all the build-up and fine-tuning, and delays in the State Senate followed by backlash from City Council, critics maintained that the bag law was a deeply flawed, pricy, and potentially ineffective solution for the city’s enormously costly and just plain gross habit of tossing out 9.37 billion plastic bags every year. In Cuomo’s eyes, the penalty was “beyond the absurd” and constituted “capitulation” because, instead of going to the government, it would go directly into shop owners’ pockets, resulting in “a 100 million dollar bonus to private companies.”
As the politicians spat venom back and forth, B+B met with some of the people caught in the middle, who happen to have their own ideas about the bag fee. We spoke with close to a dozen bodega owners and convenience store cashiers, the people on the front lines of the plastic bag war.
Inside a sparse deli in Greenpoint, when asked if he was familiar with the plastic bag fee bill, a cashier who declined to give his name seemed confused. “The one in California, right?” He seemed familiar with that state’s various bans and fees, but was totally unaware of anything similar in the works here. (However, he did take a moment to remind us, “These bags aren’t free. I pay for them.”) This proved to be a constant theme. Nearly every shop owner, cashier, and counterperson B+B spoke with had no idea that the Bring Your Own Bag Law even existed.
There was one notable exception: Dennis Camacho Jr., part-owner of American Deli, a “mom and pop” spot with “classic vibes,” located on Franklin Street along the Greenpoint waterfront. At mention of the bag tax, he pointed up at a small paper sign stuck to the checkout counter. “We got this in the mail last week,” he explained. It was an official notice from the Department of Sanitation announcing that a “New Carryout Bag Law” would go into effect February 15, 2017, and informed shop owners that they “must charge their customers at least five cents ($0.05) per carryout bag provided by the store, with some exceptions.”
Camacho was aware that the law had been postponed, however Cuomo’s override was news to him and yet not a surprising development. “The government is always trying to squeeze every single cent, every single dollar out of you,” he said, noting that “little stores like us” seemed to suffer the most. “I guess there’s not much you can do about it.”
Which was too bad, because he thought that the measure was “a great idea” and “a step in the right direction.” He pointed out that in Canada, places like Toronto had adopted bag bans, which seemed to be effective. “They don’t use plastic bags.”
Alex, a clerk working at a Manhattan shop in Gramercy, had a completely different take on the matter. “Nah, you gotta have plastic bags,” he said. Another cashier, who we met working a shift at a Manhattan Avenue bodega in Greenpoint, seemed split on an all-out ban, but liked the concept of the bag fee. “I think it’s a good idea,” he said.
But for many more bodega workers, the potential flaws of the Carryout Bag Law were immediately apparent. One cashier at the Bus Stop deli in Bed-Stuy shook his head as he pointed to the bustling morning crowd. “These people won’t pay for it,” he told me, rolling his eyes at the tangle of outreached arms jabbing and grabbing for cigarettes, coffee, and hoagies in exchange for crinkled dollar bills.
On the other hand, shop owners like Camacho think that the law might have benefitted from enacting a higher price. “Maybe 25 cents? It could have been a little more,” he said.
As the Bus Stop clerk made clear, some cashiers might find it easier to break the rules, skipping the five cents altogether to avoid arguments with customers and having to explain give people their bags. It’s hard to believe there would be much enforcement– if the city fails to call out landlords who take advantage of an “easily enforceable” tax subsidies for affordable housing without actually delivering on the apartments, it’s doubtful the city would take punitive action for ignoring a five-cent bag fee.
In his statement, Governor Cuomo said that the issue of plastic bags is part of a larger problem: since “the impact of plastic and paper waste on our environment is not a local issue,” he argued, it should be addressed in “a statewide solution.” Unfortunately, that means New York City will simply have to wait on the slow-moving slug machine that is Albany– already, Cuomo’s statement asks more questions than it gives answers, and fails to put forth an alternative bag ban plan. Meanwhile, plastic bags will continue to be a “a scourge” on the city and state, as Senator Liz Krueger observed: “Albany has chosen to kick the bag down the road.”