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Plastic Bags

A customer paying 5 cents to purchase a plastic bag from IGA Fort Salonga. File Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

A small fee on plastic bags in Suffolk County has made a very big impact on usage, according to an environmental advocacy group.

Beginning in January 2018, a 5-cent tax on plastic bags from retail stores took effect across Suffolk County with a stated goal to reduce bag waste and encourage shoppers to use reusable bags. County officials alongside environmental advocacy groups and educators announced the new law has worked as intended at a press conference March 21. 

According to the one-year effectiveness report, Suffolk County is using approximately 1.1 billion less plastic bags compared to previous years. Other key highlights include 41 percent less plastic bag litter on beaches and plastic and paper bag use at stores has been reduced by over 80 percent. 

Data showing number of plastic bags collected on suffolk County beach cleanups. Image from Citizens Campaign for the Environment

“We have made a difference, right here in Suffolk County,” Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said. 

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment who presented the report’s findings, said the bill has made a real difference. 

 “This legislation has changed public behavior — that was the goal,” she said.  

The report showed more members of the public bring their own reusable bags when shopping, while some forgo bags entirely. Overall much less plastic bags were
being used. 

Esposito also mentioned that the data collected in the report is being cited across the nation as other municipalities try to promote similar plastic bag bans and fees. 

“It was a little rocky in January of last year, not everyone was a happy camper, but it takes time to adjust, [the public] did it and we move on,” she said. 

Rebecca Grella, a Brentwood High School science teacher said Suffolk County is a model for the future when it comes to making changes for the environment. She also pointed to student scientists who played a large role in the survey and data collection for the effectiveness report.  

“We had six school districts on Long Island that had students go out to different locations from 2017 to 2018,” Grella said. “Without the support and the work of these young scientists out in the field we would not have the data that we have today.” 

The science teacher said it shows that environmental changes take time but also stressed the involvement of our youth. 

“Engaging our youth in these pursuits is critical,” she said.  

Data explaining rate of carryout bag usage in Suffolk County. Image from Citizens Campaign for the Environment

This turn of events could be a good sign for Long Island, whose municipalities are already struggling due to changes in the recycling industry. Though the Town of Brookhaven Green Stream Recycling facility has stopped operation since its contractor walked out on its contract with the town, when it was operating town officials said plastic bags were dangerous if they went through the facility, due to the way they could snag and constrain sorting mechanisms.

John Turner, a conservation policy advocate at Setauket Environmental Association said the legislation has had benefits on local recycling facilities as well, citing that at town municipal recycling facility machinery would be routinely clogged up by plastic bags.    

Operation would need to be shut down every couple of hours to remove all the bags, costing the town $184,000 each instance to do the work and remove the bags. 

The report comes on the heels of the county’s continuation to reduce single-use plastics. In February, legislators announced policy incentives aimed at restricting the sales of several plastics, some harmful to health and to the environment. In July 2018, a project called Strawless Suffolk started and looked for 100 seaside restaurants in Bellport, Greenport, Huntington, Northport, Patchogue and Port Jefferson Village to take a pledge to stop using plastic straws by Sept. 3, 2018. 

Citizen's Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito, on left, shows the decrease in single-use plastic bags (in blue) from a survey done in December 2017 to one done in April 2018. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though there are still people in Suffolk County who regularly kick themselves for forgetting to bring their reusable bags into stores, a newly-released survey says the law that enforces a five-cent per bag fee has so far been effective.

Legislature to vote on statewide ban of plastic bags

By Desirée Keegan

At the state level, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a bill to ban single-use plastic bags across the state April 23, which would begin in January 2019 if passed. The three-page bill, introduced by the governor a day after Earth Day, comes a little more than a year after he blocked a 5-cent surcharge that New York City had sought to place on plastic bags.

Cuomo described the measure as an effort to counteract the “blight of plastic bags” that is taking “a devastating toll on our streets, our water and our natural resources,” he said in a statement.

Seeking re-election for a third term in the fall, Cuomo then quoted an adage: “We did not inherit the Earth, we are merely borrowing it from our children.”

If the bill were to pass, New York would join California, which approved a statewide ban of plastic bags in 2016. Hawaii has a de facto ban on plastic bags; all of its counties have instituted bans.

But the measure faces an uncertain path in the Legislature, where leaders of the Assembly and the Senate had opposed the city’s bill. The measure would very likely face a stiffer challenge in the Republican-majority Senate.

Under Cuomo’s proposal, a variety of bags would be exempt from the ban, including those that contain raw meat, fish or poultry; bags sold in bulk; those used in bulk packages of fruit and dried goods; those used for deli products; newspaper bags; trash, food storage and garment bags; and takeout food bags. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation would also be allowed to exempt certain bags through regulations.

The news comes after advocates from across the state gathered the same day in Albany to hold Cuomo accountable for meeting his climate and clean energy commitments.

“Today, New Yorkers delivered a message to Governor Cuomo: Walk the talk on climate action; follow through on your words, because lasting change only happens through action and putting goals into law,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “New York has a remarkable opportunity to be an international leader on climate if, and only if, we embrace a future powered by renewables. The people of the state will continue to remind Governor Cuomo of this opportunity until he takes advantage of it.”

“And this is only in three months since the law passed,” Executive Director of Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment Adrienne Esposito said to the Suffolk County Legislature’s Health Committee April 19. “This is a great success. Public behavior is changing.”

In November and December of last year, her environmental advocacy group conducted a study that showed 70 percent  of 20,000 Suffolk County shoppers surveyed left a store with a plastic, non-reusable bag in tow. Only 6 percent of customers surveyed used a reusable bag.

After a new survey of 6,000 people this month in 20 grocery stores throughout the county, just 30 percent of those surveyed bought plastic bags and 43 percent were now carrying reusable. Twenty-one percent of people shopping in those grocery stores decided not to take a bag.

“As we celebrate Earth Day it’s great to have news that the bag fee is effective, said Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport). “I know that there were concerns with adopting the bag law, but to see real, tangible results in such a short period of time, I think it’s very exciting.”

Ocean plastics have become a real concern to a number of environmental scientists and advocacy groups, and Esposito said the next goal is to see if there’s a way to reduce the use of other sources of plastic, like straws and utensil.

“Plastic is becoming a real threat to the environment,” she said.

Dr. Rebecca Grella, a Brentwood schools research scientist and teacher, surveyed Flax Pond Marine Laboratory in Old Field in October 2017 and said the amount of plastics found in the water was extremely troubling.

“What we found at the Flax Pond in one square meter [was] 17 grams of microplastics, which are plastics under 5 millimeters [large],” Grella said. “In the entire shoreline of Flax Pond — over a mile of shoreline — we extrapolated there is about 400 pounds of plastic.”

The microplastics are from larger pieces that have eroded along the sea floor until they are smaller in size. They are often ingested by sea life, which not only endangers aquatic creatures but any creature who eat them, including people.

Spencer said that while a total ban on bags would have been more efficient, there was no way to get it passed by the Legislature.

“I think in order to get to this point after years of negotiation, the nickel offered a successful compromise,” Spencer said. “I think the law has worked so well because people don’t want their nickels going to the store.”

“By charging people 5 cents there seems to be a lot of people getting angry and agitated,” Grella said. “In all actuality, it isn’t as easy to put a 5-cent fee on paper or plastic.”

Despite the success, Esposito admitted there is a chance to eventually see an increase in purchased bag use as more people get used to the law.

“We do get concerned about people getting used to the nickel and just paying it,” she said. “So that’s why we need to keep up public education.”

Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment is planning to conduct another survey in November and December to gather a much larger sample size, and survey more than just grocery stores.

Stock photo

Suffolk County shoppers, get your nickels ready.

In an effort to encourage residents to shop with reusable bags instead of plastic and paper “carryout” bags that harm the environment, the Suffolk County Legislature is rolling out a 5 cent fee on all disposable bags at a variety of retail establishments, from supermarkets to department stores beginning Jan. 1.

The new law, which was officially passed by the Legislature in September 2016, applies only to the single-use plastic or paper bags provided by cashiers at the end of a sale and used to carry goods from the store. There won’t be a fee, however, on bags found in produce sections for fruits and vegetables, frozen foods or on bags by pharmacies to carry prescription drugs, according to the law.

Cashiers are required to add the total fees to a customer’s receipt based on how many bags are used. Residents can avoid the fee by either buying a reusable bag — ones made of cloth or canvas, which are available in many retail stores — or shopping with a bag from home.

“Hopefully people will say ‘I’m not paying 5 cents’ and go with the other options,” said Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), who wrote the legislation to reduce the influx of plastic bag waste that gets trapped in trees, blocks storm drains and causes significant damage to water supplies and wildlife. “We’re hoping to change behaviors. While we won’t change everyone’s, this will change a lot of people’s and that can make a big difference. I think once people start to not use the plastic bags, they’re not going to really miss them.”

Spencer’s bill began in March 2016 as a ban on all single-use plastic bags, piggybacking off an initiative adopted by the Town of Southampton, but it didn’t receive enough support. This revised bill was co-sponsored and pushed by five legislators, including Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), and 140 out of 150 residents who weighed in on the initiative during a public hearing testimony.

As of Jan. 1, shoppers will be paying for paper and plastic bags at most retail stores, encouraging others to use reusable bags. Stock photo

The legislators also worked alongside a Suffolk County plastic bag working group, which consists of local scientists, educators, environmentalists, business people and government employees.

“We have to curtail the use of plastic bags,” Krupski said. “They’re everywhere. I would encourage people not to pay the fee. It’s all just a matter of changing your habits and keeping a shopping bag in your vehicle to have it at the ready. It’ll take time for people to get used to that, but like anything else, people will get used to it.”

A 5 cent fee on plastic and paper bags was adopted in Washington, D.C., in 2010 and the accumulated nickels have contributed a total $10 million to the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund, as of 2015.

As mandated by New York State, however, the fees collected in this bill will be retained by the stores. Not being able to apply the collection to an environmental cause convinced a Democratic legislator not to support the law.

“That 5 cent charge should go back into the environment,” said Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), who voted “No.” “Instead, the fees are going back into the pockets of the stores. The legislation needed work.”

Anker also said she received outcry from constituents over the concept of fees.

“A lot of the community, especially the senior population, did not want to pay extra for the plastic bags,” she said. “But I will say, plastic is a really harsh environmental pollutant.”

Spencer said he plans to revisit the legislation after a year to evaluate the financial impact it’s having and ask the state to allow funds to be used for environmental purposes.

“It would be great to do that, but only the state has that ability,” Spencer said. “The state may make that decision.”

Jay Peltz, general counsel and vice president of government relations at Food Industry Alliance, which represents 800 state supermarket chains, convenience stores and wholesalers, including Stop & Shop and King Kullen, which will be charging the fees, said it’s a current law where everybody wins.

“It will help the environment and it will help the stores,” he said. “It’s a thoughtful, productive law and is the only way to both reduce plastic bag distribution while incentivizing people to increase their use of reusable bags.”

He added that the fees may be used to help pay for higher minimum wages expected to be put in place in the coming year, but store owners are still weighing the options.


Survey: Shoppers still prefer plastic
By Desirée Keegan

A local survey conducted shows that just 5 percent of shoppers bring reusable bags.

The finding, coming ahead of a 2018 Suffolk County law banning the free use of plastic and paper bags at a vast majority of retail stores, was concluded after students from Northport, Brentwood, Huntington, Smithtown, East Islip and North Babylon, with member of St. Joseph’s College, surveyed 11,395 shoppers in November and December, in front of grocery stores, convenience stores and a pharmacies.

New Suffolk County environmental law prohibits plastic and paper bags in favor of eco-friendly reusable ones. Stock photo

The polling, organized by a county-created task force to help educate the public about the bill, found 71 percent of individuals use plastic bags, while the balance use paper, a combination, or no bag.

The survey will be repeated next year to analyze the effect of the law on consumer behavior, according to
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. She said she hopes between 60 and 70 percent of residents are bringing reusable bags by next year.

“Reducing litter, marine pollution and saving our oceans are worth changing our habits,” Esposito said.

While plastic bags drew the ire of environmentalists and lawmakers, the law also requires stores to charge for paper bags, as well as thicker “reusable” plastic bags, to prevent stores from circumventing the law, Spencer said.

County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), the bill’s primary sponsor, said county residents should contact his office at 631-854-4500 for a reusable bag, especially if you cannot afford one.

“If you need a reusable bag, come see me,” Spencer said, adding he bought 1,000 reusable bags to give away.

File photo by Victoria Espinoza.

It’s official: bagging your groceries will cost you.

The Suffolk County Legislature approved a 5-cent fee per plastic grocery bag this month, which will be collected and kept by stores. The main goal of the legislation is to reduce bag waste by incentivizing shoppers to avoid the fee and bring their own bags.

“I feel relieved,” Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said in a phone interview. “But I am also concerned.”

Spencer said he is “sensitive” to struggling families with the current cost of living, and doesn’t want them to feel like this is a new fee or tax being imposed on them.

“This is nothing new, people are paying for these bags already,” he said.

“Plastic bags are a mistake of the past. Reusable bags are the solution for the future.” —Adrienne Esposito

According to the legislator, grocery stores already work the price of the plastic bags they give away into the price of products they sell.

A report conducted by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments about plastic bags stated consumers pay $37.50 per year in hidden bag costs passed on by retailers.

But some residents are not on board with the future fee. Suffolk County Legislator Sara Anker (D-Mount Sinai) said she heard many responses from senior citizens in her district that they don’t like the new bill.

“I had an overwhelming response from residents not supporting the fee,” she said in a phone interview. “To [the senior community] it’s just another expense. The 5 cents goes right back to the retailer, and it should really go to a designated environmental fund.”

The idea of the fee going to an environmental cause was first implemented in Washington D.C., the first place in the United States to impose a 5-cent fee on plastic bags, with the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act. According to the legislation, only 1 out of the 5-cent fee is collected by the store, and the rest is deposited in the Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Fund.

In a 2013 study of the D.C. law, researchers found that both residents and businesses reported a significant reduction in disposable bag use and a majority of residents and businesses supported the bag fee. In addition, both residents and businesses said they saw fewer plastic bags littering the area.

Spencer said creating legislation similar to that in D.C. was discussed, with part of the fee going toward an environmental cause, however it ended up being out of his control.

“I would love to do that, but we don’t have the taxing authority,” Spencer said. He explained it would require state action for part of the fee to be divided and sent to an organization.

“I would love to see that money go towards conservation,” he said. “But it is important to move forward now and not wait for the state to act. On a county level, we’ve taken the lead.”

Spencer said he hopes eventually the state will create legislation that will supersede his own, but for now he must continue to do his job.

Citizens Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito applauded Spencer’s legislation.

“Plastic bags are a mistake of the past,” she said in a statement. “Reusable bags are the solution for the future. This legislation will reduce plastic bag use by 60 percent or more and that will make our communities and our bays cleaner and greener, and save us money. Kudos to Suffolk County Legislator Doc Spencer for his leadership and persistence in protecting our environment.”

The CCE said there is more plastic in the oceans than plankton, with 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile. Many marine animals are choked and strangled by bags, or die consuming them. The CCE said plastic pollution negatively impacts 267 species of marine life.

John Durso, president of Local 228, a retail labor union and Long Island Federation of Labor, said the bill will introduce positive change to Suffolk County. “The Suffolk County plastic bag law is truly an innovative bill that takes great steps to cut back on environmental waste, while also addressing the needs of local workers and businesses,” he said in a statement. “We were glad to work with the Suffolk County Legislature to collaborate on a landmark legislation that will protect our environment for future generations of Suffolk County’s working families.”

The fee will go into effect Jan. 1, 2018.

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Consumers are being encouraged to bring reusable bags to the grocery store instead of plastic bags by one Suffolk County legislator. Stock photo

Plastic bags have replaced tumbleweeds as the de-facto street debris blowing across town, but the two have very different affects on our environment.

Environmental groups from all over the country talk about the consequences of plastic bags polluting our waterways and killing our marine life. Marine animals choke on these bags and try ingesting them, which often leads to death.

One North Shore legislator is working on reducing the amount of plastic bags we use by imposing a 5 cent tax on every bag. County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) first tried to introduce an outright ban on plastic bags in stores earlier this year, but has since amended the bill to put a tax on the bags instead.

We support Spencer’s resolution to tax the bags, and think the Legislature should act quickly to put it in place.

Organic and green labels have become trendier over the past few years, but not where it actually counts. A measure like this could impact the environment that we so often take for granted.

We’re always careful when it comes to trusting government to make personal decisions for its citizens — in this case, which bags to use while shopping — but we have also been historically supportive of governmental measures that aim to conserve, improve or save the environment. This is a case where we believe the government should get more involved in our lives and regulate what materials we are using because of the tremendous impact it could have on our environment and the animals that inhabit it.

Other places, including Washington D.C., have already reported a significant reduction in the use of plastic bags through new tax laws. We think Suffolk County should join in on this success for the environment’s sake.

File photo by Victoria Espinoza.

The plan to reduce the use of plastic bags in Suffolk County has been modified with a 5-cent tax on plastic bags, replacing an original proposal for an all out ban.

County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (C-Centerport) updated a bill he submitted in March to reduce the use of plastic bags in retail sales after he saw how other areas found success with a small tax.

“My focus all along has been to improve the environment and reduce waste,” —William Spencer 

“My focus all along has been to improve the environment and reduce waste,” Spencer said in an email. “The decision to change course involved multiple factors, most importantly evidence from various municipalities with similar legislation that has proven to be effective.”

The new version would charge 5 cents per bag used by any customer, and all fees collected would be retained by the store. There would be no fee for customers who bring in their own bags, and a store cannot discourage them from doing so, the proposed law states.

A spokeswoman from Spencer’s office said the legislator looked to Washington D.C. as an example of a successful implementation of a 5-cent fee.

The Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act went into effect in January 2010, and it requires all businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge a nickel for each disposable paper or plastic carryout bag. The bill was the first of its kind in the United States, and in a 2013 study of the law, researchers found that both residents and businesses reported a significant reduction in disposable bag use and a majority of residents and businesses supported the bag fee. In addition, both residents and businesses said they saw fewer plastic bags littering the area.

The study found that residents estimated a 60 percent decrease in household bag use, moving from 10 disposable bags per week before the law to four bags per week in 2013. Seventy-nine percent of residents reported carrying reusable bags when shopping and 74 percent of businesses saw an increase in customers bringing their own bags. And, perhaps most important for residents who are still wary of the tax, the study reported 8 percent of businesses and 16 percent of residents felt bothered by the law.

Spencer said this law is an important step in protecting the environment.

Suffolk County Legislator William "Doc" Spencer file photo
Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer file photo

“This is an opportunity to secure a win for the environment because it will form a consensus of necessary support among the legislature and key stakeholders,” he said.

The Citizens Campaign for the Environment said there is more plastic in the oceans than plankton, with 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile. Many marine animals are choked and strangled by these bags, or die consuming them. The CCE said plastic pollution negatively impacts 267 species of marine life.

Spencer said he intends to keep a close look on the progression of the bill, and that if a tax doesn’t reduce the use of plastic bags enough, he will reconsider an outright ban.

“We are moving in a positive direction, and I intend to look closely at bag usage, before and after implementation, to ensure it’s effective,” he said. “If it is not having a significant impact, I have every intention of working to strengthen the policy including revisiting the ban.”

One Suffolk County legislator wants to see an end to single-use plastic bags. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

One North Shore legislator is looking to make plastic bags a thing of the past.

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) introduced a bill at the Legislature’s general meeting on March 3 that would ban single-use plastic bags throughout Suffolk. The lawmaker said the idea has already received support from community members, business owners and environmental groups.

“It is something that has been on my radar since I first took office,” Spencer said in a phone interview. “I’ve heard the frustration about how they end up as unsightly litter on our roadways and in our waterways after being used for all of 12 minutes.”

Spencer said that retailers spend $4 billion each year to give plastic bags to consumers — a cost passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. New York City alone spends $10 million disposing of plastic bags annually, he said.

After about 12 minutes of usage, Spencer said, a plastic bag could easily become pollution that litters parks and blocks storm water drains or can pose a serious threat to wildlife.

Spencer there is more plastic than plankton in our ocean.

“Fish eat plastic bags, which cause them to choke,” Spencer said. “An animal could die from that, and the plastic bag will still remain intact, going on to kill another animal. This is killing our planet.”

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, echoed the sentiment.

“Plastic bags pollute our beaches, bays, roadways, parks and neighborhoods,” Esposito said. “They kill thousands of marine mammals and shore birds every year. Last year, volunteers removed 10,500 plastic bags from the South Shore Estuary. The answer to this ubiquitous pollution plague is simple — ban the bag.”

The CCE conducted a survey of more than 650 Suffolk County residents, and 80 percent supported either a ban or fee of plastic bags.

“The time has come to simply ban them and practice BYOB – Bring Your Own Bag,” Esposito said.

Business owners have also lent their support. Charles Reichert, owner of five IGA grocery stores, including locations in Fort Salonga and East Northport, said he believes all of New York should abide by this bill.

“It’s inevitable, so let’s have a countywide bill,” he said in a statement. “Honestly, I think it should go statewide as opposed to having these different laws, but I’d be happy with a countywide bill.”

For grocery store shoppers who fear they will now have to buy reusable bags, Spencer said fear not. He and several other organizations said they planned to give away many free reusable bags if this bill takes off.

“Plastic bags just came on the scene in the last 30 years,” Spencer said. “We got along fine without them. This is good stewardship of the planet.”

A public hearing for this bill is scheduled for March 22. If adopted, there will be a 12-month period before implementation of the law, and within those 12 months, Spencer said he would propose a companion bill to provide a comprehensive education and awareness campaign to assist the public and retailers with the shift.

“We want to ensure customers and retailers will have a successful transition and are fully aware of the alternatives,” he said. “The campaign will also highlight the pivotal role the public will play in reversing the detrimental effects these plastic bags have had on our planet in such a brief period of time.”