The Pied Piper of Plastic Bags hosts NAG’s Happy Hour.
Jennie Romer, the past Community Outreach Coordinator of Greenpoint/Williamsburg’s NAG, is a lawyer by trade, a connector by practice, and a fighter by nature. She is best known in this community as the host of NAG’s Environmental Happy Hours, convening local activists and enthusiasts from across the green spectrum to learn about current issues and events, drink beer and talk. You can check out her efforts this coming Monday, March 19, at the New Women’s Space in east Williamsburg.
Before you go, though, you might be interested to know about Jennie’s other burning passion: cleaning up the myriad mess imposed by single-use plastic bags. In this effort, Ms. Romer is a quiet, but potent, warrior.
In 2007, San Francisco became the first major US metropolis to ban plastic bags. It was, and remains, a pioneering and unlikely feat. After all, given the American addiction to convenience (San Francisco knows a thing or two about fighting that bugbear), the humble-seeming single use disposable plastic bag is a formidable foe. Ubiquitous, inexpensive, and alienable, plastic bags are hugely popular, in a mindless sort of way. How popular? The documentary “Bag It” makes the compelling claim that plastic bags are the number one consumer item in the world. New York City alone produces and consumes just under 10 billion of these commodities each year — many of them right here in North Brooklyn, at any one of a number of bag factories.
It was this staggeringly large number that first drew Oakland, CA native Jennie Romer to the Big Apple. Having been instrumental in San Francisco, and later, Los Angeles’ landmark bans, Romer set her sights on the largest piece of the pie: New York City. “I came to New York because if we can stop plastic bags here, we’ll have an effect nationwide, even more than the anti-bag laws in California did,” she said in an interview with the New Yorker a few years back. “We passed an ordinance in L.A., the second-biggest city, and it was time to move on to the biggest.
Romer’s activism, much of which is collected on her website, plasticbaglaws.org, focuses on making plastic bags less convenient at their source. The most effective way she has found to lessen the allure of these pesky, free-floating litter tidbits is to charge for them at their source, by mandating retailers to charge a $0.05 fee per bag to customers. While not officially a tax — to sweeten the deal for retailers, they would get to keep the money — this system still acts as a way for the state to address the exorbitant costs imposed upon the taxpayer by the ubiquity of plastic bag trash.
“Carryout bag laws that have a fee component are by far the most effective and equitable policies,” notes Romer. “There are two structures that I support and both include a fee component to spur customers to bring their own bags: a fee on all bags or a ban on thin plastic bags and a fee on all other bags.” Having learned lessons in the trenches of the West Coast, Romer, together with activists Councilmembers Margaret Chin and Brad Lander from New York City government, and consumer groups such as Bag It NYC, managed to make significant inroads into the plastic bag issue in NYC. Her work resulted in the city’s landmark passage, in May, 2016, of a first-ever plastic bag fee law, Intro 209a, mandating a $0.05 fee on all single-use bags in the city, plastic or paper. This pIcture of Margaret Chin’s reaction sums it up best.
However, the fee was not to be: blocked at the state level by a surprisingly recalcitrant, democratic-controlled Assembly, and refused a veto by Governor Cuomo, Intro 209a was dead on arrival. Romer’s tears of joy at the bills passing gave way to a hardened frustration at the on-again, off-again bill, and the tone of the legislative fight in general. “ I’d hoped that Trump’s presidency would spur greater concern with strengthening and protecting environmental laws at the local and state level, but at least in some respects it seems to have emboldened conservatives,” she noted ruefully a year ago.
Unbowed, Romer continues the fight. Much of her energy these days is devoted to consulting and advocacy through events and seminars, an active channel of mini-lectures on YouTube, and her afore-mentioned community building exercises through hosting the Environmental Happy Hour. And, she assures, the Plastic Bag fight continues: “I’m excited about the state bill introduced by state Senators Krueger & Hoylman last month. It bans thin plastic bags and mandates a minimum charge on paper bags and on thicker plastic bags that qualify as reusable. Most of the money collected goes to an Environmental Fund, it’s a great example of the type of legislation that I push for.”
For which we at Go Green BK applaud her. After all, remember the fight we are all fighting:
You can meet Jennie at this month’s NAG Environmental Happy Hour, which she will host. RSVP here!