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As towns defer to county, a plastic bag ban seems unlikely

10/15/2015 12:00 AM |

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Will recent bans on single-use plastic bag in Southampton and East Hampton towns inspire more local municipalities — including those on the North Fork — to follow suit?

Probably not, it seems.

Despite outcry from a vocal segment of the public, the supervisors of both Riverhead and Southold towns agree that idea of banning plastic bags would best be addressed in the county Legislature.

But Suffolk legislators seem equally unlikely to bring up the topic. Some cite a lack of political will to rally support for a ban while others think the Legislature should wait to see if existing bans work.

Over the past few weeks, advocates of a ban and concerned North Fork residents have signed petitions and spoken out at Southold Town Board meetings. A public forum last year also found widespread support for a townwide ban.

The bags, activists say, threaten local wildlife, add litter to parks and roads and pollute waterways. A move toward reusable bags would reduce the amount of garbage, they claim.

Opponents say eliminating the cheap bags would increase costs for business owners, and others worry that reusable bags could pose public safety hazards.

At a Southold Town Board meeting last Tuesday, Supervisor Scott Russell reiterated his position, saying he would support a plastic bag ban at the town level if Riverhead Town did the same.

A regional approach led by the county, he said, would be even better.

Southold’s solid waste coordinator James Bunchuck agreed, saying a county-wide ban would likely be more effective than bans in several individual towns; however, he said, many plastic bags are reused to line garbage pails or pick up pet waste.

Mr. Bunchuck said the town has tried to recycle the plastic bags they recover at the trash facility in Cutchogue, but recycling companies aren’t interested in dirty, contaminated bags. He believes an outreach campaign teaching residents to recycle plastic bags themselves would help the most.

“Do you take people’s choice away for people being careless?” he asked. “I’m not a policy maker so I don’t know … but we do see a lot of people up there who use the bags for other purposes.

Related: Where else have plastic bags been banned? And have those bans worked?

Mr. Russell’s primary concern is increasing costs for Southold Town businesses while their nearby competitors aren’t forced to do the same, he said.

“They’re already having trouble competing because they don’t have the purchasing power of the big corporations,” he said at the meeting. “Let’s make sure that the businesses all compete on a level playing field.”

But support from Riverhead Town may not be forthcoming.

Of the three candidates on the ballot for supervisor this November, both incumbent Sean Walter and Republican candidate Jodi Giglio said they opposed implementing the North Fork’s first plastic bag ban.

“If that’s a regional problem, that’s something that needs to be solved at a state or a county level,” Mr. Walter said. He said having a variety of town bans would create a “piecemeal” approach that he believes would make it difficult for businesses to adapt.

“The reality is, a lot of these individual bans, they may not be uniform, they’ll be difficult for businesses,” he said. “If this is such a scourge, let the county or the state take care of it.”

Mr. Walter said plastic bags should be reused — like in garbage bins — and not simply thrown away, adding that trash cleanup would be more beneficial for the environment.

“A lot of people like to scapegoat the plastic bags,” he said. “I wonder how many of those same people walk past trash every day and don’t pick it up.”

Related: What you need to know about plastic bags

Only Riverhead Democratic challenger Anthony Coates said he’d support a plastic bag ban at the town level.

“I think over time people will come to change their behavior,” Mr. Coates said. “Eventually the marketplace shakes itself out. In the end, markets find their own level.

“Somebody has to start somewhere …  toward reducing our waste stream,” he added.

Even so, Mr. Coates said he’d rather have Suffolk County legislators lead the way to “level the playing field.”

“It belongs on a regional basis,” Mr. Coates said. “When you really think about it, we as a county are larger than 17 states. It’s a large marketplace.”

However, the idea of a plastic bag ban isn’t palatable in the Legislature.

Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said he’s spoken to his colleagues over the past two years and found practically no support for the ban. Mr. Krupski said it’s not worth spending “political capital” on a plastic bag ban discussion when he knows it’s dead in the water.

“I’m not going to try to force it, because this is something that you can’t force,” he said.

A renewed plastic bag ban discussion wouldn’t be the first time the County Legislature has broached the subject, or even the first time it passed a ban.

In March 1989, the legislature created a law to ban the use of plastic grocery bags and takeout food containers, the first of its kind in the nation, according to an article in the New York Times.

The measure passed by a vote of 16-0, with two abstentions, and was set to take effect that summer. But court challenges by the plastics industry immediately derailed the law and a series of last-minute amendments further delayed its implementation, the Times reported in 1991.

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“Even though it started as a good thing, it has a potential for being a step backward at this time,” Ray Cowan, then regional administrator of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, told the Legislature at the time.

By 1992, Suffolk County refused to enforce the law and legislators voted for another delay, eventually tossing the ban out altogether.

Other steps, like recycling initiatives and a ban on polystyrene containers, were passed, but additional attempts in 2008 and 2011 to limit plastic bag use encountered strong resistance from grocery store chains and the plastics industry, according to a Newsday article.

Personally, Mr. Krupski said he understands the concerns of environmentalists who oppose the bags and doesn’t feel it’d be a burden on local business owners.

“From someone who’s in business, businesses adjust,” he said. “There was a time we didn’t have plastic bags.”

But the legislator said he has other priorities, like bringing committee meetings to the East End and improving water quality, that he wants to focus on.

In a written statement, presiding officer of the Legislature Duwayne Gregory (D-Amityville) didn’t take a stand for or against a ban, but said a proposal would need to be discussed after seeing how the bans work on the South Fork.

“I recognize the gravity of the threat that plastic bags present to our environment, particularly to wildlife,” Mr. Gregory said in a statement. “Before committing to a county-wide ban, however, the Legislature should examine both the implementation and the impact of the ban in Southampton.”

But some county legislators had expected a plastic bag ban to have been brought up already.

“I’m just surprised we’ve not had this discussion yet,” said Republican minority leader Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst). “It’s an eventuality that it’ll come before [the Legislature].”

Mr. McCaffrey noted that the Legislature recently voted to ban microbeads in shower gels, so the idea of banning a product for purposes of environmental conservation isn’t out of the ordinary.

The legislator said he hasn’t made up his mind on the plastic bag issue.

He believes a compromise could be reached between those who fear environmental damage and those concerned about burdening businesses.

“We’d be looking to find a balance,” Mr. McCaffrey said.

Exactly when they’ll start pursuing that balance remains unclear.

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Photo credit: Vera Chinese

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