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Bag ban: New York's future may not be in plastics

Wednesday, 21 Aug 2013 | 5:52 PM ET
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First it was extra-large sodas. Now, plastic bags are on the endangered list in New York.

Members of the City Council will introduce a plan Thursday to have retailers charge shoppers a dime for each plastic or paper bag they need at checkout. The aim is to encourage people to bring their own bags and reduce the number that New Yorkers use, now pegged at 5.2 billion a year.

"Too often at the register, we bag and double-bag, heedless of the severe environmental cost we all pay," Councilwoman Margaret Chin said in statement announcing the plan. "In my district in lower Manhattan, after a busy weekend, you can see these bags overflowing from trash cans and in the streets and gutters. The bags end up clogging our streets, littering our public parks, and costing taxpayers millions of dollars in clean up and waste removal."

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If passed, stores would have to charge at least 10 cents for its bags, a fee the store would get to keep. Restaurants would be exempt, along with purchases made with food stamps. Produce, meat and bulk food bags used within stores would not incur the fee.

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New York City certainly wouldn't be the first to impose restrictions. Dozens of West Coast cities, Washington, and Austin, Texas, have restrictions or full bans on plastic bags. (The City of Austin Resource Recovery department even has its own Pinterest page dedicated to DIY reusable bags.)

In California, about 120 cities and counties have adopted or are considering plastic bag restrictions, said Dave Heylen, spokesman for the California Grocers Association.

The hodgepodge of rules has led the California grocers to push for a statewide ban on all one-time-use plastic bags.

"Strictly from a business standpoint, we think our industry can regulate ourselves," Heylen said. "But in 2006, 2007, San Francisco came out with the first ban. ... Then other cities in California started to explore this, and we saw that a number of them were tweaking it a little bit. Maybe a higher charge here and there. Since our members do business in multiple municipalities, especially our bigger retailers, it made more sense from a business standpoint that we have one statewide ordinance."

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At least one grocers group is against the New York plan.

"We're adamantly opposed to this," Brad Gerstman of the New York Association of Grocery Stores told Crain's New York Business. "It's a tax on small businesses and their customers, and it's insane at this juncture to further incentivize customers to go shopping in a different city or state."

Some stores are taking action on their own.

Nationwide chain Whole Foods Market eliminated plastic bags in 2008. It now offers 100-percent recycled paper bags for free or reusable ones for purchase. The stores also offer a five- or 10-cent credit for each bag a shopper brings in to reuse. It estimated that in the first two years it removed 100 million new disposable plastic bags from circulation, said company spokeswoman Libba Letton.

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Ikea pulled plastic checkout bags from its 38 U.S. stores in October 2008. The company implemented a phaseout over a year and a half, and was at 92 percent of its elimination goal when the total ban went into effect. It sells an oversize, reusable blue bag for 59 cents.

The New York proposal seeks to build on a state law requiring large retailers to provide recycling bins for plastic bags. But that law has been poorly enforced and hasn't effectively cut the amount of trash, according to Alex Moore, the press representative for Councilman Brad Lander.

Proponents hope to pass the New York ban on free bags by the end of the year, Moore said.

By CNBC's Amy Langfield. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLangfield.

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