Gotham Gazette

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Bagging Plastic Bags

It's the same situation for many New Yorkers. Lurking under your kitchen sink is a growing, almost uncontrollable number of plastic shopping bags. The environmentally conscious city dweller habitually hoards bags, because here, as in many places across the city and state, the bags are not recycled.

Now the City Council is aiming to reduce that accumulating pile. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Peter Vallone have introduced legislation that would require stores larger than 5,000 square feet to recycle plastic bags.


In addition to the plastic bag bill, members introduced several other pieces of legislation throughout October, from broadening the definition of tenant harassment to limiting engine idling.

Piling Up Plastic Bags

Plastic bags have not traditionally been recycled, because – unlike plastic water bottles - they are a blend of several plastics and are so relatively hard to handle. In fact, only 4 percent of bags are recycled in the country as opposed to 25 percent of plastic bottles.

Under the council's proposed legislation (Intro 640), stores over 5,000 square feet would have to provide large bins for reusable plastic bags in a visible place near the front of the store. They would also be required to use plastic bags that state, "Please return this bag to a participating store for recycling," and to also offer reusable bags for sale.

At least 700 businesses should be captured by the bill, said Quinn.

Plastic bags are not biodegradable, and Americans use about 84 billion of them annually. Producing these bags consumes an estimated 12 million barrels of oil annually.

"If the pilgrims had bought their turkeys with plastic bags, they would still be here today," said Vallone. "Not the pilgrims, the bags."

Bags collected would be sent back to the manufacturer or sold to a local contractor for recycling, where the used bags can then be turned into new ones or into plastic furniture.

"Plastic bags, which are made from non-renewable petroleum resources, are used for a matter of hours before they are discarded," said Eric Goldstein, the Natural Resources Defense Council urban program co-director. "But they create environmental burdens that last for hundreds of years."

According to the Department of Sanitation, plastic bags make up about 2.73 percent of the overall city waste stream, or about 91,830 tons a year.

Stores that are found in violation of the legislation would be subject to a $500 fine for the first violation, $800 for the second violation and a $1,000 penalty for a third or subsequent violation within the same year. Stores will also be required to report to the Department of Sanitation on the number of bags collected and the cost of compliance.

Quinn said complying with the legislation should not place an undue financial burden on any store, small or large.

The legislation has garnered support from myriad council members as well as the Progressive Bag Alliance, a nonprofit association of plastic bag manufacturers, the New York League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Quinn said she would like to move the bill quickly through the legislative process. There is already a hearing scheduled for November 13.

Protecting Tenants from Harassment

Currently, tenants can take their landlord to Housing Court only for the physical condition of the building or a failure to provide essential services. But under legislation (Intro 627) introduced by council members Daniel Garodnick, Melissa Mark Viverito and Quinn, residents would be empowered to take landlords to court for harassment.

Now, every violation, such as lack of hot water on multiple occasions, must be dealt with independently. But with this legislation, city officials said, an extra layer of protection is granted through a "harassment" clause.

It would protect against a landlord threatening a legal occupant, habitual interruptions of essential services, frivolous court proceedings to disrupt a tenant’s life, removing possessions from a unit or other intentional acts solely meant to disturb the tenant.

A violation of the proposal would come with a $1,000 to $5,000 penalty.

“Tenant harassment can come in many forms, and once we pass this legislation, we’ll have the legal framework to cover them all," Quinn said in a prepared statement. "This law will ensure no tenant is powerless when faced with an unscrupulous slumlord intent on getting them out of their home."

Some in the real estate industry have expressed opposition to the bill.

If approved by the full council, which is more than likely, it will go into effect immediately.

Idle Engines

It's a minute and counting under a bill (Intro 631) introduced by Councilmember John Liu of Queens last month. Liu is proposing to limit the time cars and buses can idle in front of schools. The time limit for idling anywhere in the city is currently three minutes.

The bill would apply to schools only with grades 12 and below.

Fines under the current law, which range from $200 to $3,000, would also apply to Liu's proposal.

License for the Bridal Shop

Councilmember Michael McMahon of Staten Island would like to make it mandatory for bridal shops and wedding photographers to be licensed under the Department of Consumer Affairs.

The proposed legislation (Intro 633) would require shops and photographers to keep records on daily operations and would allow the commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs to investigate a shop or photographer's business practices.

A license would be good for two years, and it would cost $125.

Substituting Salt

Because the use of salt can be corrosive to the city's infrastructure, Councilmember Helen Sears of Queens introduced legislation requiring the Department of Sanitation to use a substitute.

The bill (Intro 634) would require the department to use a substitute such as ash, sand, sawdust or some similar suitable material following a snowfall or ice storm.  

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