Monday, November 05, 2007

Plastic Policy

Today, as the NY Times is reporting on its blog, Speaker Quinn joined with Lauren Bush, the president's niece, at a Whole Foods store to promote the council's plastic bag legislation. We're unsure as to why the 73,000 sq. ft. Whole Foods was chosen as a representative venue, but we can't think of a store in New York that is less typical of the average retail outlet.

In fact, according to the reports that we've heard the upscale food retailer is going to pay customers ten cents a bag if it is returned to the store-which is some trick since five bags are worth about one penny. What this underscores is the fact that Whole Foods, unlike most New York supermarkets, is able to subsidize its bag recycling because it not only has ample space, but it also has much higher margins than the average food store. In addition, as a Times story earlier this year pointed out, Whole Foods customers, unlike the average borough consumers, are high-end, environmentally conscious shoppers who will be more likely to respond to the voluntary recycling system being proposed.

As one food executive told us, if his stores were able to charge its customers in East Harlem and the South Bronx the kind of prices that Whole Foods routinely gets from its customers, they would be able to easily afford to pay 10 cents for a recycled bag. The reality, however, is that New York supermarkets are being squeezed by high rents and real estate taxes, so much so that the Manhattan supermarket is rapidly becoming a vanishing breed.

In addition, with the city becoming urgently concerned with an obesity epidemic, and the access to fresh fruits and vegetables for low income New Yorkers, does it make sense to increase the cost of doing business for these vital retail services? Is the Speaker serious when she says that this regulation won't have a major economic impact on the stores? Has an economic impact study been done? Is it even being considered as part of this bill?

The reality is that the current bill version puts local stores right in the middle of the regulatory cross hairs-while holding the bag manufacturers harmless for their product. There's a $2,000 a day penalty for stores that fail to comply with the statute! This regulation alone is not the death knell of the supermarket industry, but it's part of an escalating regulatory and taxation pattern that is slowly killing off all independent retailers in the city.

And what about the provisions for recycling the bags. Is there a pick-up service in place to do the work? And who's responsible for paying for the recycling. At a penny for every five bags there's no one gonna get rich here on the recycling value alone. Therefore, the recycling must be subsidized. And read the relevant language in the bill: "A manufacturer whose plastic carryout bags are sold or distributed to a store subject to the provisions of this chapter shall make arrangements with the operator, upon the operator’s request, for the collection, transport and recycling of plastic carryout bags consistent with the provisions of this chapter. Such arrangements may include contracts or other agreements with third parties."

What exactly does "make the arrangements" mean? Make no mistake about it, this is a costly operation and, unlike the bottle bill, there's no aluminum to subsidize the pick-ups. How do you propose third party recycling pick-ups when there's no one doing the business, and you haven't a clue about its cost?

And doesn't the bag manufacturer have any fiduciary responsibility? Isn't it interesting that the bag industry, which obviously had a hand-or input-in the crafting of the bill, was present at the press announcement but the food industry wasn't? Is there any correlation here?

Lastly, at least for now, why do the chain drug stores below the 5,000 sq. ft. threshold get a pass, while the small independently owned supermarket gets the privilege of inclusion? There's a long way before this bill gets its final burden. What's really needed, however, is a more engaged industry. This is just the latest, but it won't be the last so-called good intention, that local stores will be forced to foot the bill for.