Editorial: Bag fee should be a local decision

State had no business overriding NYC's efforts to clean up its own mess
Laurie Gould of Pasadena, California, is covered with hundreds of plastic bags during a rally.
Laurie Gould of Pasadena, California, is covered with hundreds of plastic bags during a rally.

There are a lot of issues that should be handled on a statewide level. And there are a lot that are best handled on the local level.

In New York, giving local governments control of solid waste has always been seen as a more efficient, cost-effective, direct way to manage the problem.

State regulations designed to protect the environment are appropriate when applied to local landfills.

But it’s the county and local governments that have been left to manage recycling/transfer stations; hire their own staffs; set their own hours of operation; set their own prices for trash disposal; and establish their own local policies for accepting recyclable materials like plastic, paper, cardboard, metal, glass and electronics.

It’s the local and county governments that collect the fees and negotiate the contracts to sell recyclables and dispose of trash.

So how, then, does one explain the state’s decision to stick its nose in New York City’s business and override a legitimate, home-rule decision by the governing board of the city, the City Council, to address a local trash issue?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week signed a bill passed by both houses of the Legislature that prevented the city from imposing a reasonable 5-cent fee on single-use plastic grocery bags.

Plastic bags are a particular problem for the nation’s largest city, which uses an estimated 10 billion of them a year. A lot of these bags end up in landfills, floating down into parks, hanging from trees, blowing around the streets, clogging storm drains and finding their way into rivers and lakes, where they are consumed by marine life or gather in floating piles of plastic gunk.

The City Council had voted to impose the fee in an attempt to reduce their use and encourage people instead to use reusable bags. The fee didn’t apply to people on public assistance, so it wouldn’t have hurt low-income residents. For others, using 10 plastic bags to carry their-groceries, the fee would have added 50 cents to the grocery bill.

In the wake of the state’s actions, the city may consider an outright ban on the bags, which would impose even greater hardships on residents and retailers, particularly chain stores. An outright ban on the bags, state or local, is not a practical solution right now.

After determining that regulating this one particular item of trash is a statewide problem, the governor and the Legislature have proposed a task force to study the problem. That’s not likely to end well. Either the task force will meet for years and still won’t come up with a workable solution. Or, this being New York state, they’ll come up with onerous new regulations and a statewide bag tax so we all can pay more.

Reducing the use of plastic bags would go a long way to cleaning up New York City’s environment. But not every community has a problem with the bags, so they might not want to burden their residents with a bag fee.

Upstate retailers, including many in our area, have collection bins in their stores where people can bring back the bags for recycling. That seems to work in many cases. And when it doesn’t, communities should feel free to come up with their own solutions.

Plastic bags are a solid waste problem that can be, and is being, handled by local communities around the state and the country, dependent upon their own individual situations.

The state had no business overriding New York City’s efforts to clean up its own mess.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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