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Bagging Plastic Pile-Ups

by Courtney Gross, Jan 11, 2008
 
Every time you leave your home, you usually return with at least one plastic bag, which is then destined for two places: To join the other dozens accumulating under your kitchen sink or the trash.

But under a new bill approved by the City Council on January 9, you will have another way to dispose of these notorious nuisances. You will be able to drop them off at large stores or chains throughout the city, which will be required to recycle them.

Paper or Plastic?

Pushed through the City Council in a little more than two months, the plastic bag legislation ( Intro 640) will require stores larger than 5,000 square feet or chains with more than five locations in New York City to take back the plastic bags. The legislation was approved by a vote of 44 to 2, with council members Vincent Ignizio and Dennis Gallagher dissenting.

The legislation, introduced by Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, received support from supermarket and business associations and environmental groups as well as plastic bag manufacturers. In addition to the plastic bags, the recycling bins could also accept other plastic film, such as bags from dry cleaners. Stores will have six months to comply with the bill, which mandates that pharmacies, grocery stores and other large businesses keep collection bins for recycling in visible locations and also requires they sell reusable, cloth bags.

"Shoppers that faced the paper or plastic conundrum now have a new option -- cloth," said Vallone.

Stores will be required to contract with recyclers, who can use the bags to make plastic furniture, new bags or even decks. Plastic bags make up about 2.73 percent of the overall city waste stream, or about 91,830 tons a year, according to the Department of Sanitation. It is estimated that New York City residents use 1 billion plastic bags annually. Nationwide estimates are about 84 billion bags a year.

Plastic bags are not included within the city's recycling program, because they are made of a blend of plastics and are consequently hard to handle.

Under the legislation, the plastic bags provided at stores would have to have messages encouraging the shopper to return it to a participating location.

Since the bill's introduction, several changes, including a drastic reduction in the proposed fines, were made. When first introduced , the bill carried a $2,000 a day fine for noncompliance. Under the approved version, the fines were decreased to $300 a day. The changes were presumably made to compromise with the supermarket industry.

Quinn said if compliance is not as high as the council expects, it can always revise the law.

Though advocacy and business groups eventually sided with the council and supported the legislation, it took some bargaining, said Pat Brodhagen, vice president of public affairs for the Food Industry Alliance. The group, said Brodhagen, had no objection to recycling plastic bags. In fact, she noted, several of its members already do so voluntarily. But, she added, the original fines were exorbitant.

"I think we successfully argued these fines were out of proportion," said Brodhagen. "Now, we say we can and will do this."

Though the financial impact on businesses is expected to be small, according to Quinn, that did not stop one council member from voting against the legislation for that reason. Gallagher said, "I received some complaints from local businesses.… It's government taking a step I don't agree with."

An Extra Week

The City Council also approved legislation (Intro 675 ) extending the deadline by one week for Mayor Michael Bloomberg to submit his preliminary budget proposal. The budget must now be in by Jan. 24.  


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