A majority on the Suffolk County Legislature last week followed the path of New York City in approving a measure which would impose a five-cent charge by retailers for a single-use plastic bag — or paper bag — when shopping rather than following several Suffolk towns and villages that have passed laws flatly banning single-use plastic bags.
Originally, Legislator William Spencer introduced a measure similar to the laws enacted by the Towns of East Hampton and Southampton and Suffolk villages including Southampton, East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Sagaponack, Quogue and Patchogue — and governments around the country and world — that ban single-use plastic bags.
But his measure met stiff opposition from various business interests including the plastics industry, as have earlier proposed laws in Suffolk seeking prohibitions on single-use plastic bags.
At a hearing on his bill in June, business interests urged Legislator Spencer to alter his bill to make it similar to one passed the month before in New York City setting a five-cent charge on a single-use plastic or paper bags. “I ask you to take a second look at the New York City bill,” testified Jon Greenfield, co-owner of a ShopRite store in Commack and others in Nassau County.
A medical doctor as well as a legislator, Spencer, of Centerport, responded that he was concerned that such a fee would result in those who could afford to simply paying for the bags and, “It creates almost a class system.”
But, subsequently, he agreed to change his bill to one like the New York City law which was originally to take effect next month but is now slated to be operational in February..
Spencer declared last week: “The goal of the policy is to reduce bag waste by incentivizing consumers to avoid the fee and Bring Your Own Bag.” He heralded his measure as “historic.” County Executive Steve Bellone intends to sign it. It would take effect on January 2018 unlike Dr. Spencer’s earlier bill that would have become operational a year after its passage was recorded with the New York Secretary of State.
The new bill also provides that “if this approach fails to reduce the use of plastic bags by at least 75 percent in three years, the idea of an outright ban can be revisited at a later date.”
Several legislators were opposed to the measure. Legislator Sarah Anker of Mount Sinai, regarded as a strong environmentalist on the panel, said that senior citizens she has heard from are especially against the charge. Like Spencer and Bellone, Anker is a Democrat. She voted against the bill along with fellow Democrat Lou D’Amaro of North Babylon and Republicans Leslie Kennedy of Nesconset and Rob Trotta of Fort Salonga. Voting for it were 13 legislators.
Much of the body of the new Spencer measure remains the same as the original. It still includes the statements that “between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year” and that “plastic bags account for over 10 percent of debris that washes up on our nation’s coastline.” It still declares: “This Legislature also finds that plastic bags can have a devastating effect on wildlife, birds can become entangled in the bags and different species of sea life can die from ingesting plastic bags which they mistake for food.”
It also still rebuts the rosy industry claim of plastic bags being recycled. “This Legislature finds that only 5 to 7 percent of plastic bags are recycled, in part, due to the fact that it costs more to recycle a bag than to produce a new one,” it says.
The big changes are the elimination of a ban, the addition of the 5-cent charge, dropping a line stating the bill’s “purpose …to prohibit retail stores in Suffolk County from providing plastic carryout bags to their customers” — and paper takeaway bags being joined with single-use plastic bags. The latter is something the plastics industry has been pushing nationally. And the bill’s title was changed from a “Local Law Prohibiting the Distribution of Plastic Carryout Bags” to a “Local Law to Reduce the Use of Carryout Bags.”
The new bill also says that it “will not impair or supersede any ordinance, resolution or local law enacted by a village or town within the County of Suffolk” on takeaway bags.
These towns and villages stood strong against the interests that opposed a ban on single-use plastic bags. On the other hand, a Suffolk Legislature majority with the expected backing of the county executive have decided on a compromise.
Will the compromise work? If it doesn’t, will, as the measure says, “the idea of an outright ban” be “revisited at a later date?”
An outright ban on single-use plastic bags is truly what is needed — whether industry likes it or not, but its power has been shown to be huge here and elsewhere on the single-use plastic bag issue.
The 5-cent charge, not too incidentally, is to be kept by the retailers.
Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.
Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.
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