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Suffolk Closeup: Unlike the county, Patchogue showed true leadership on plastic bags

Photo: Colorado landfill. Credit: Suzan Beraza

by Karl Grossman | Last week, as the Village of Patchogue’s new law banning single-use plastic bags took effect, a majority on the Suffolk County Legislature followed a different path — one that the plastics industry and a variety of other businesses favor — for voting a five-cent charge on single-use plastic bags along with paper carryout bags, too.

This has also been the course taken by New York City.

Originally, Suffolk Legislator William Spencer introduced a measure similar to the law passed in Patchogue, as well as the statutes enacted by the towns of East Hampton and Southampton and other Suffolk villages including Southampton, East Hampton, Sag Harbor, Sagaponack and Quogue — and governments around the country and world — that ban single-use plastic bags.

But his measure met stiff opposition from the plastics industry and other business interests—  as have previously 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 single-use plastic and 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, Dr. Spencer, of Commack, 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..

Dr. Spencer declared as his measure was voted upon 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.” 

Suffolk 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.”

Legislators who voting against the measure included Leslie Kennedy of Nesconset and Rob Trotta of Fort Salonga, both Republicans.

“I am concerned that the bill calls for people to be charged a fee for using paper bags as an alternative to plastic, when paper bags have always been free,” said Mr. Trotta.

Sarah Anker of Mount Sinai, regarded as a strong environmentalist on the panel, also voted against it and said that senior citizens she has heard from are especially against the five-cent charge. Like Dr. Spencer and Mr. Bellone, Ms. Anker is a Democrat. Also voting against the bill was Democrat Lou D’Amaro of North Babylon.

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% 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 five-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 — including Patchogue — 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 has 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 five-cent charge, not too incidentally, is to be kept by the retailers.

Top Photo: Colorado landfill. Credit: Suzan Beraza

About the author: Karl Grossman

Karl Grossman has been a Suffolk County-based reporter since 1962. As well as practicing journalism, he teaches it as a full professor at the State University of New York College at Westbury. He has received many honors for his journalism including the George Polk Award, and has been inducted into the Long Island Journalism Hall of Fame of the Press Club of Long Island. He is the author of six books and is the host of the nationally-aired TV program “Enviro Close-Up.” His email address is kgrossman@hamptons.com.