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Should There Be a Fee on Plastic Bags?

Americans rely on plastic bags for things like carrying their groceries, lining garbage cans, and picking up after their dogs. But recently, several U.S. cities have either prohibited stores from giving them out, like in Los Angeles, or have started requiring people to pay for them, as in Washington, D.C. Last spring, New York City became the latest place to join the fight against plastic bags. The City Council passed a new law that, beginning in February, will require most stores to charge customers at least 5 cents for every disposable shopping bag they need. Is a fee on disposable plastic bags a good idea? Two experts weigh in.


Americans go through a lot of plastic bags—more than 100 billion each year. And all those plastic bags do a lot of damage. They get caught in trees, clog storm drains, and harm wildlife. Birds, fish, sea turtles, and other animals get tangled in plastic bags or mistake them for food and choke. Plastic bags also waste taxpayer funds. In New York City, we pay an estimated $12.5 million to ship 91,000 tons of plastic bags to landfills each year. Plus, plastic bags often jam recycling equipment, leading to expensive repairs.

That’s why New York has joined cities across the country and around the world in trying to reduce our use of plastic bags. Our new law will require stores to charge at least 5 cents for each paper or plastic bag.  

But the goal is not to collect the fee. Instead, we want this small charge to encourage people to use reusable bags. We bring a backpack when we go to school and keys when we leave the house. We can all remember to bring reusable bags when we shop. In other places that have adopted fees for bags, that’s exactly what people have started to do. 

It’s hard to believe that a small charge could have such a big impact on protecting our environment. But according to research, fees have already proved effective in reducing plastic or paper bag use in a number of places, including Washington, D.C.,* Los Angeles, Germany, and England. Some experts predict that a 5-cent fee will lead to a 60 to 90 percent reduction in the use of plastic bags in New York City.

We want to make this new law work for all New Yorkers. That’s why low-income residents who buy their groceries with food stamps will be exempt from paying the fee. We’ve also committed to giving away tens of thousands of reusable bags at events across the city so everyone will be ready for the change.   

We’ve still got a lot of work to do to improve our environment and cut back on waste. But with our new bag law, New York City will be off to a strong start.



New York City Councilman

*Some studies about Washington, D.C.’s bag fee have found it to be effective; others have not.


To achieve real, sustainable environmental progress, we need to focus on proven programs that encourage all citizens to reuse and recycle plastic bags. Unfortunately, the new law in New York City requiring stores to charge at least 5 cents for each bag won’t help us achieve our environmental goals. Furthermore, the fee amounts to a tax that will make life more difficult for families who are struggling to make ends meet. 

Other communities that have taxes and fees on plastic bags have seen little, if any, environmental progress. This is partly because plastic retail bags make up a tiny portion—less than 0.3 percent—of the U.S. municipal solid-waste stream. That makes it impossible for such policies to achieve a meaningful reduction in overall waste. A recent study suggests that the total number of plastic bags used in Washington, D.C.,* has actually increased since 2010, when a 5-cent fee went into effect.  

Bag fees also have negative environmental side effects. For example, alternative products, such as reusable bags, produce more waste and consume more resources than plastic bags. The popular thick plastic reusable bags generally imported from China are made from oil and often end up in landfills when they’re thrown away because they’re not recyclable. Most plastic retail bags, on the other hand, are recyclable, highly reused, and produced in America from natural gas. 

The bag fee in New York City is particularly troublesome because the money collected will not go toward environmental programs. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be taken out of the pockets of low- and middle-income residents—who already struggle to pay for groceries—and given to retailers. 

Worst of all, taxes and fees threaten jobs. Plastic bag manufacturing and recycling companies support more than 24,000 employees and their families across the United States.

The best way to improve environmental efforts in New York City and elsewhere is to focus on proven initiatives that encourage folks to reuse and recycle plastic bags.


Executive Director, American Progressive Bag Alliance

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