Suffolk County will ban plastic bags by 2018

The Suffolk County Legislature is in the process of enacting a law that will prohibit retail stores from giving out single-use plastic bags at checkout. The law is expected to be signed by the county executive by 2017 and will go into effect one year later to allow stores to use their remaining supply of bags and to educate the public about the change. Similar legislation is already in place in the towns of Southampton and Easthampton in Suffolk County, as are state-wide bans in California, Wisconsin and parts of Connecticut. With this law, Suffolk County is looking to be a leader in this economical movement by being the first in New York State to enact a county-wide ban.

Operation S.P.L.A.S.H. (Stop Polluting Littering And Save Harbors) is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization based on the South Shore of Long Island that cleans debris from the South Shore Bays (Nassau and Suffolk), monitors pollutants in the area, and conducts student education programs.

S.P.L.A.S.H. President Rob Weltner said that last year alone, they picked up over 10,500 plastic bags from the bays. As an avid mariner, Weltner has a “different perspective than most people” on the effects of plastic bags on marine life. He explained that when plastic bags are floating in the water they take on the shape of natural food sources such as jellyfish and squid, especially at night when animals such as whales and dolphins are using echolocation in place of eyesight to find food.

“Once they eat it, it’s pretty much like they’ve just been given a death sentence,” Weltner said.

Plastic bags are also non-biodegradable. Dr. J Bret Bennington, professor of Geology, Environment and Sustainability at Hofstra University, explained how plastic bags break down into microplastics, “and those tiny plastic particles get consumed by plankton and then they bioaccumulate up the food chain.” This means by nature of the food chain, humans are potentially consuming these microplastics. President Obama recently passed a ban on microbeads, another form of microplastics, because they do not biodegrade either. Instead, they build up in our waterways and get mistakenly consumed by marine life.

While most people might think the reason for passing a ban on plastic bags is strictly environmental, Long Island is a unique case since it is located on several aquifers that supply the water for all of the Island.

Legislator William Spencer D-District 18, who proposed the law, said  plastic bags “get drawn into our sewer treatment plants and storm water runoff pipes and cause local flooding.” Spencer also said they “get drawn into our recycling streams where they clog up the equipment so taxpayers have to spend a lot of money cleaning them out of our infrastructure. So when storm water pipes are blocked the local flooding can cause contaminates and sewage to get into our groundwater.”

While environmental advocates support the law, some of the retailers think it will hurt their businesses and allow for unnecessary government intervention at the local level. The Food Industry Alliance represents food retailers, drugstore and convenience store members, and grocery wholesaler members in New York. Jay Peltz, general council advice president of government relations for the Food Industry Alliance (FIA), said they oppose the ban because “typically after a plastic bag ban is enacted, paper bag use surges. And paper is worse for the environment than plastic because paper bags are barely reused and recycled.”

Not only are paper bags not good for the environment, but they are also much more expensive to produce than plastic bags. The goal of this law is encourage consumers to switch to reusable bags, or pay ten cents for each paper bag used at checkout. If the ban is enacted, stores won’t have to pay for plastic bags and would make a ten cent profit on every paper bag.

“The problem is customer resentment when they find out that the retailers can keep the money,” Peltz explained. “So we believe that retailers will start donating the paper bag proceeds to nonprofits.”

In this case, retailers would not make a profit and would be locked into paying for paper bags which are triple the cost of plastic bags.

The towns of Southampton and Easthampton already have a ban in place, and when asked in a phone interview who was responsible for bringing attention to the issue, Legislator Bridget Fleming D-District 2 stated that the ban was completely driven by the community rather than local officials.

“Particularly in our area where the health of our natural resources is really the engine that drives our economy and the basis of our community character, there is a very clear awareness of the need to take good care of our natural resources,” Fleming said.

Fleming’s district includes popular beach communities that rely on tourism as a major source of revenue, so it makes sense the community initiated this movement to preserve their economy.

Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE) is an 80,000 member organization based in Farmingdale, NY with two offices on Long Island, three in upstate New York and one in Connecticut. Their goal is to advance environmental and public health programs by working with elected officials and increasing citizen participation in the process. The CCE has worked with other municipalities throughout New York State on plastic bag bans and they also helped draw up the Suffolk County law. Hudson Valley program coordinator Jordan Christensen said they have not experienced any backlash by the communities where the bans have been enacted.

“They’ve all enjoyed a large amount of public support.” said Christensen. “Most of the complaints are coming from larger retailers who don’t want to make the change.”

Bennington also compared the ban to the New York State Returnable Container Law of 1982.  This law commonly known as the “Bottle Ban” requires retailers to pay a five cent deposit on every eligible container in the store and when the containers is recycled the retailer receives the deposit plus a 3.5 cent handling fee.

“There was a lot of resistance to it, people didn’t want to pay the extra money, and beer and soda distributors didn’t want to have to deal with the hassle of collecting returnables,” Bennington said. “But we went ahead and did it and it really had a huge impact on reducing the amount of aluminum can litter in the environment.”