Friday, November 7th, 2014
Given the sky-high cost of living in New York, among the highest in the country, the average consumer doesn’t have a lot of money to spare. This is particularly true in the outer boroughs, which are home to some of the poorest congressional districts in the country. So it’s disappointing that the Big Apple is the latest metropolis to contemplate misguided legislation to tax plastic grocery bags in an attempt to address litter.
Plastic bag taxes are inherently regressive, doing the most damage to the people who can least afford it. Supporters often cry that these taxes are minimal and the average citizen buying groceries should be able to afford them, but in a city where 1 in 5 people lives below the poverty line, that’s naïve, insensitive and presumptuous; these taxes can be crippling for those at the bottom of the economic spectrum, who simply are doing their best to put food on the table for their families.
Moreover, New York City (NYC) has a higher percentage of non-car owning citizens than any other city in America, making plastic bags a logical and convenient choice for the city’s many residents, who get by riding buses, taking trains and walking. The plastic bag’s popularity with urban dwellers stretches back to its origins in the mid-1960s, when suburban dwellers preferred paper bags that could stand up in the trunks of their cars. Urbanites opted for plastic bags instead, since they have handles, are lighter, can hold 1000 times their weight and are reused. New Yorkers should be allowed to continue to enjoy these benefits without having to pay for the privilege.
The market economics of NYC’s grocery stores also are uniquely suited to include plastic bags, as the city isn’t dotted with big chain establishments but with tiny, owner-operated bodegas, delis, multipurpose shops and other small businesses. A bag tax could squeeze local store owners as much as it squeezes average New Yorkers.
The fact is that supporters of the NYC bag tax are misguided in their attempts to control litter. The issue here is not material; it is behavioral. Plastic bags can and should be recycled. It’s been nearly two decades since we, as a country, had an honest conversation about litter or took the time to educate and empower the next generations of schoolchildren about how to properly dispose of and recycle everything that can be recycled.
SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association and the American Progressive Bag Alliance (APBA) share NYC’s concern about litter, and we are ready to have a conversation about how we can eliminate it and close the loop on plastic materials. Recycled materials of all types are valuable to innovators and businessmen and good for businesses, communities and the environment. We oppose bag taxes, which are a regressive, counterproductive and intellectually lazy response to a community and environmental issue that cries out for bold action and long-term commitment.
We must educate and empower our young people to make a difference. That’s why SPI recently teamed up with JASON Learning, a nonprofit organization managed by the Sea Research Foundation, in partnership with the National Geographic Society, to launch the “Think Outside the Bag!” plastic film and bag recycling contest. By asking students to come up with creative campaigns to increase awareness about recycling flexible plastic films (i.e. dry cleaner bags), product wrapping and traditional plastic grocery bags, the contest aims to make today’s youth tomorrow’s plastic recycling and anti-litter advocates. The APBA also supports A Bag’s Life, a program that helps kids and their communities learn more about recycling plastic bags while giving them the tools they need to host their own recycling events across the country.
Rather than cynically working to reduce consumer access to materials that are convenient and environmentally friendly but arbitrarily declared undesirable, we’re working to build a lasting solution to the problem of litter by helping change consumer behavior now and in the future. The plastics industry, led by SPI and the APBA, is moving the needle on recycling and reducing litter, and we won’t stop until every plastic bag is reused or recovered and every piece of litter eliminated. Instead of merely trying to tax its way out of this problem, NYC can be the leader it always has been and join us in challenging its residents to help put an end to litter once and for all.