New York City Aims to Do What S.F. Officials -- To Their Credit -- Wouldn't: Profiteer off Plastic Bag Fee

Categories: Environment
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Jared Gruenwald
You can make money, and that's good. And you can help the environment, and that's great. And, sometimes, you can do both -- and that's just super. But when you're only using the environment as a front for a money-making scheme, then you've crossed the line into green-washing. And that's where New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is.

This week, the New York Times reported that Bloomberg knocked a penny off his initial bag fee proposal, down to five cents -- yet now expects to rake in five times the revenue ($84 million, up from $16 million). How's that work? Simple. He just expanded the scope of the fee past grocery stores to all stores. This way, the Big Apple hopes to net $144 million by 2011.

And there's the rub. These days it's hard to argue against any revenue-generating mechanism. But by strategically putting a fee on bags that's low enough consumers will unthinkingly pay it -- rather than bring their own bags to the store, the ostensible reason for having bag fees -- then you've abandoned any pretensions to helping the environment. This is all about making money. Period.

Last month, I wrote a cover story about how San Francisco's plastic bag ban is actually counterproductive for the environment. But whatever flaws I found in the plan put forward by the city's Deparment of the Environment and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, I would never accuse them of using so-called environmental programs as a mere cash cow.

In fact, Robert Haley and Jack Macy of the city's Department of the Environment told me that a Bloomberg-like move was the exact opposite of what they wanted for San Francisco. When the city was pushing a bag fee -- prior to a move one could either call "gamesmanship" or "chicanery" by the state's large grocery stores to kill such a measure -- the projected fee was in the neighborhood of 17 cents. The idea wasn't to find a consistent revenue source but to kill a revenue source as more folks began toting reusable bags.

In San Francisco, the road to hell may well be paved with good intentions. But, it would seem, in New York City, the expressway to hell is paved with disingenuous ones.

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