Plastic-bag ban weighed by East End officials

Susan Fisher, a cashier at the IGA in Susan Fisher, a cashier at the IGA in Southold helps shopper Carol Pearce from East Marion pack her groceries using the plastic bags that could soon be banned, on Friday, July 25, 2014. Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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As East End officials weigh a ban on plastic checkout bags across their five-town region, Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst is gauging support for a ban throughout Suffolk County.

She has discussed the idea for a countywide ban with local legislators, and in the spring pitched a ban in East Hampton, Southampton, Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island during a meeting of East End mayors and supervisors, said officials who were present.

"I don't think there's any disputing the environmental value of moving in that direction," Throne-Holst said last week. "The devil is in the details, and how you enforce something like that and have it work."

Advocates of a ban say thin, single-use plastic bags, the ones commonly used to tote groceries, linger for centuries and often end up in the ocean, where they can kill animals, such as whales, that ingest them. The villages of Southampton and East Hampton banned the bags in 2011.

"The problem is that these bags never leave the environment," said Dieter von Lehsten, co-chairman of the Sustainable Southampton Green Advisory Committee. "They only break down into smaller particles."

Throne-Holst and other supervisors said they want the ban to span all five towns, because that would create a level playing field for competing grocers on the East End. But the insistence on a regional approach has frustrated advocates of an immediate ban in Southampton.

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"It is easy to say, 'Well, we all want to do it together,' but who is taking the lead?" von Lehsten said. "Someone needs to say, 'Let's go.' "

Southampton's Solid Waste Advisory Committee circulated a letter among town board members last week that said 20 million plastic bags end up as trash in the town each year.

"Each day that we wait adds another 54,000 bags to be disposed of somehow, somewhere in our community," it said.

Supervisors said they are discussing the idea with residents and grocers.

"I think it's a constructive environmental idea worth exploring," said Shelter Island Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty. "On Shelter Island here, we're an isolated island community, and we respect our local businesses very much, so we're commencing the process by having some quiet, informal discussions with the relevant businesses."

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said a ban received wide support among residents at a roundtable discussion earlier this month, but would only be feasible if it also applies to supermarkets in neighboring Riverhead Town.

"We have some small owner-operators of business that find themselves at a competitive disadvantage with retail giants in Riverhead," Russell said. Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter didn't return a call seeking comment.

Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) said Throne-Holst has spoken to him about a countywide ban, but added he opposes that ban and a regional one, instead favoring an East End-wide surcharge of five to 10 cents on plastic bags that would go into a dedicated fund for litter cleanup and other environmental projects.

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"I'm guilty," Schneiderman said. "I like to use those plastic bags. I feel like I'm a responsible user of them, and I find them very convenient."

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