Suffolk County is considering a county-wide ban on the distribution of single-use plastic bags by retailers.

A bill introduced by Legis. William Spencer of Centerport, co-sponsored by North Fork Legis. Al Krupski, is set for a March 22 public hearing.

The bill would ban the use of the single-use plastic bags now provided at checkout by nearly all supermarkets, discount stores and other retailers, including farm stands. The banned bags, called “carryout” bags in the bill, are those with handles made of plastic less than 2.25 mils thick. Bags without handles made of plastic less than 2.25 mils thick — the kind used to bag produce in a supermarket — are exempt, as are bags provided by a pharmacy to carry out prescription drugs.

Retailers could still distribute carryout bags made of plastic more than 2.25 mils thick — which the bill calls “reusable plastic bags” — but would have to charge the consumer a fee of no less than 10 cents per bag. Retailers could also use recyclable paper bags — those which contain no old-growth fiber, contain a minimum of 40-percent post-consumer recycled content and are 100-percent recyclable. Recyclable paper carryout bags are subject to a 10-cent per bag fee.

The per-bag fees charged would be retained by the retailers, which currently spend $4 billion per year to give out free single-use bags now customarily used, according to the bill’s sponsor. That cost that is passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices, Spencer said. Once used and discarded, the bags typically end up as litter, costing taxpayers money and resources for clean-up and proper disposal.

“Plastic bags pollute our beaches, bays, roadways, parks and neighborhoods. They kill thousands of marine mammals and shore birds every year,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Since the retail switch to plastic bags, which became prevalent more than three decades ago, the amount of plastic in our oceans came to exceed the amount of plankton, Spencer said. “Just as astounding is the resources needed to manufacture the bags: 2.2 billion pounds of fossil fuel and 3.9 billion gallons of fresh water to produce the 100 billion plastic bags the U.S. consumes each year,” he said.

“Limiting the amount of plastic making its way into our environment and our food chain is important and prohibiting the use of plastic carry out bags is a great start,” Krupski said. “It is a step numerous communities across the nation have already undertaken.”

In fact, Suffolk County became the first municipality in the nation to adopt a plastic bag ban in 1988. (The law, written by then-legislator Steve Englebright, also banned the use of many other plastic packaging, including foam takeout cups and containers.) After three years of litigation brought by the plastics industry, in which the county successfully defended the landmark law, a new Republican-Conservative majority in the County Legislature in 1992 approved a moratorium on the ban. That move effectively scuttled the Englebright measure. The county later required most retailers who use single-use grocery bags to provide on-site containers for consumers to deposit them for recycling.

In the years since, single-use plastic bags have been banned in many communities across the country and around the globe — among them, the towns and villages of East Hampton and Southampton. Former Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst promoted the idea of a regional ban in 2014 and pushed fellow East End supervisors to advocate for bans in their towns. They didn’t bite.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter opposes the ban, which he says is based on a theory that’s “silly,” because consumers can and do reuse the bags currently in use.

“I use those bags to line our garbage pails,” he said. “All you’re doing is shifting the issue to a bigger bag and costing the consumer 10 cents.” Walter said he doesn’t intend to voice his opposition. “I’m going to stand by and let the county do what they think is best.”

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said he supports the county bill. He said when Throne-Holst advocated for a regional ban on the East End, he said the ban should be county-wide. “My position was based on ensuring a level playing field so that all businesses would be subject to the same restrictions. This legislation appears to address that and I am supporting it,” he said.

Long Island Farm Bureau director Rob Carpenter said his organization has not taken a formal position on the proposed ban. He said farmers were concerned about having to use paper bags at farm stands, because with wet produce, paper can be a problem. But since plastic film bags are exempted and can be used for produce items, there hasn’t been an issue.

“Conversations I’ve had with farmers in East Hampton and Southampton haven’t really been as impacted as they thought they were going to be,” Carpenter said.

The North Fork Environmental Council is urging its members to write to the legislature to support the bill.

“Single-use plastic bags never fully decompose — they just turn into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic which are ingested by finfish, shellfish, birds and even plankton — some of which we, in turn, ingest,” the organization said in an email to members.

The plastic bag bill will be the subject of a public hearing at the legislature’s general meeting in Hauppauge on Tuesday, March 22. That meeting begins at 4 p.m. If passed by the legislature, the bill would take effect one year from its date of filing with the N.Y. secretary of state.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.