Paper or plastic?

The usually unified City Council is divided over a proposal to charge shoppers a dime for each plastic bag or paper sack they use rather bringing their own carry-all for groceries and other retail purchases.

The movement to target plastic bags, which cost the city $12 million a year to discard in landfills, is a noble one designed to help heal the abused environment. But asking consumers to cough up a dime for plastic or paper is the equivalent of levying another tax on New Yorkers. And the ones hardest hit by the fee would be those least able to afford it – the low-income and the elderly, although food stamp users would be exempt.

Several large U.S. cities — Los Angeles, Seattle and Washington – have sent the plastic bag packing. But unlike New York, many of the residents in these cities rely heavily on cars to shop. Plastic bags with handles make it easier for New Yorkers to cart their groceries and other purchases along city streets as they walk from the store to their homes.

The bags then can be recycled for many other uses, such as tying up garbage, preventing food from leaking, disposing of kitty litter and storing clothing.

Banning just plastic bags could spark a rush to paper bags, which fall short on these practical applications and can attract roaches.

The alternative to these less than perfect choices of plastic vs. paper is for shoppers to provide their own bags. This is a simple solution in theory but not so easy when it comes to remembering to schlep that string bag to the market.

New York City with fewer plastic bags would probably be a better place. Our trees are choked with bags tossed up into the branches by wind and our landfills are littered with plastic that can last from 10 to 20 years. But what happens to all the household garbage abandoned by the bags?

Outlawing the free plastic bag in most stores would force us to alter our lifestyles, but it should not come at the expense of the people who can least afford to be on the frontier of change, particularly when retailers would keep the 10-cent fees.

The Council should weigh very carefully the impact of a plastic bag tax on all city residents and give serious thought to other approaches to wean New Yorkers off our addiction to the little white sack.

No wonder our lawmakers in Queens are at odds.

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