Suffolk County introduced a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper...

Suffolk County introduced a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags in many stores in an effort to reduce pollution. Credit: Johnny Milano

Editor's note: This column orginally ran on Jan 24, 2018.

Thanks to New Year’s Eve traditions of outrageous partying or, in my age group’s case, outrageous tries at staying up past 9:45 p.m., any change that hits first thing on New Year’s Day can startle us.

So to the hungover and hazy shoppers at Giunta’s Meat Farms in Holbrook early on Jan. 1, the new nickel fee for plastic and paper bags felt outlandish and sneaky.

“You couldn’t wait till Monday to start charging?” one aggrieved 30-ish dude asked as he paid for eggs, hot sauce, bacon, miniature powdered doughnuts and spicy V8. He was sporting sunglasses indoors and gave off a sense that his sole New Year’s resolution might be to never remove them.

“It is Monday,” the young woman ringing up my groceries replied, which earned her a grunt of annoyance as the guy, bagless, food-juggled away.

I was startled by the fee, too, even though the darkened back corridor of my brain knew it was coming, but in the moment, it never occurred to me not to pony up. In fact, my first impulse, at 5 cents a pop, was to make the kind of grand gesture I’d always been too cheap or broke to enact in saloons.

“I’ll buy a round of bags for the house!” I imagined roaring to cheers from every aisle. “And double-bag all the two-liters!”

It might be the only situation we’ll ever find where you can treat 45 people for $8.35. I might do it yet. But — and this is how behavioral nudges change the world — though the 10 cents I paid for two bags did not bug me then, this fee bothers me more with each trip to the store, and I hear others saying the same.

Paying for stuff we used to get free is particularly annoying. Paying these nickels is optional, since we can buy reusable bags cheap that will last a very long time, so we feel as if we’re wasting money. And the stores get to keep the nickels, so we feel scammed.

If Burger King started charging 10 cents for ketchup packets, most of us would be much angrier than if the price of fries rose 50 cents. It’s an emotional issue. There are people steaming about the nickel bags who are still paying $65 a month to gyms that, for all they know, burned down in 2014.

The Suffolk County Legislature passed a bill to make businesses charge a nickel per disposable bag, making it the first county in New York to implement such a fee, because the bags are a huge source of pollution. The point is to get people to use their own reusable bags. A survey last year showed only 5 percent of Suffolk County shoppers were doing so.

Irritating people and taking their money are tried-and-true ways to change behaviors, but they don’t work perfectly, they don’t work quickly, and they often have to be revisited and strengthened.

Case in point: In New York State, a 5-cent deposit was added to bottles and cans in 1983. In 2015, 65 percent of those bottles were redeemed. That’s not bad, and not great. But the returns would likely increase if the nickel deposit were made an inflation adjusted 12 cents. People would be more supportive if all the deposits kept by the state for unreturned bottles went to the Environmental Protection Fund, which now gets only $15 million a year, with the rest going to the general fund.

So it worked, but it could work better.

We might find that with single-use plastic bags, too, we need to go further. California banned them completely, and charges 10 cents for reusable paper bags, and the combination has driven the pollution from these bags down by 70 percent.

The nickel fee has been enough to push many to buy our own bags. The question now is how long it will take — or how much they’ll need to charge — before most of us remember to actually carry the reusable ones into the store from the car.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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