Plastic shopping bag ban efforts grow in Westchester

A woman carries her purchases in plastic bags

A woman carries her purchases in plastic bags on May 24, 2012. Westchester County is leading the state in communities opting to ban plastic bags at the checkout counter. Photo Credit: AP

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Westchester County is leading the state in communities opting to ban plastic bags at the checkout counter, with an organized movement under way to pass local legislation that outlaws their use and imposes penalties.

In 2011, ever-trendy East Hampton and Southampton became the first two communities in New York to forbid use of the super-thin plastic shopping bags handed out in countless retail stores. By the end of 2011, the town of Rye passed similar legislation too -- followed shortly thereafter by the neighboring village of Mamaroneck. Now talk of banning the nonbiodegradable bags at checkout is spreading in every direction from Westchester's two Long Island Sound communities as a way to address bag-related litter and ecological problems.

"It's such a simple thing to do in your community but it has enormous, positive environmental impacts," said the Rye Sustainability Committee's Sara Goddard, who is leading the charge. "And it's not costly . . . It really brings the community together and makes us rethink how we conduct our lives."

Like the Hamptons, Goddard took Westport, Conn.'s ordinance as her model -- and it has become the template under discussion countywide. The goal, she said, is to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags.

The ordinance's basic terms call for imposing $150 penalties on stores that supply customers with plastic bags. The exceptions are filmy dry cleaner garment bags, plastic produce bags, newspaper home delivery bags and the heavier-gauge plastic bags used by restaurants for takeout food.

Local merchants are usually given six months from the law's passage to use up their plastic bag inventory before the law goes into effect.

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In early March, Goddard took her presentation to Northern Westchester Energy Action Consortium. Now the influential environmental group is planning to approach local elected officials about spearheading a collective, regional ban in the towns of Somers, Lewisboro, Bedford, North Castle, New Castle and North Salem, according to consortium chairman Herb Oringel.

"Filling up landfills with plastic bags and shipping waste to these landfills is a no-no from the standpoint of energy efficiency and pollution control," Oringel said.

"Landfills are a very messy, ugly process," Oringel said. "Plastic bags are a small part of the waste stream but they are nevertheless involved."

TAKING IT DOOR TO DOOR

Over the next month, public hearings are scheduled in three communities. First up on Tuesday is the village of Larchmont.

"Like our neighbors, we really want to leave a pristine environment as a great legacy for our children, so we're looking toward the future in proposing this initiative," said Elizabeth Poyet, a member of Larchmont's Committee on the Environment. "The problem with these single-use plastic bags is that they are used for an average of 12 minutes, they don't biodegrade and remain in the environment indefinitely."

To prep the public for its 7:30 p.m. hearing in Village Hall Court, Poyet said she and other advocates have been going door to door talking to merchants and encouraging classroom discussion in local schools. The environmental documentary "Bag It" has also been screened recently around town.

With the villages of Larchmont and Mamaroneck both part of the town of Mamaroneck, the town is also examining the issue and has a public hearing set for 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 3, at Town Center.

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"The idea is obviously that since we're all the same municipality, we want the same rules so that customers won't be confused," said Mamaroneck town councilwoman Abby Katz. "Anything we can do to reduce the waste going into our landfills or flying around and getting stuck in trees and blocking our storm sewer systems -- which is even more important -- is beneficial to the community."

Separately, Tuckahoe held its first public hearing on a proposed ban on March 11, with plans for a second hearing at 8 p.m. on April 8 at Village Hall.

The plastic bags discussion is also coming to the Rivertowns along the Hudson. At 7 p.m. Monday, March 18, the Tarrytown Environmental Advisory Council has invited Goddard to give her talk at the Warner Library. So far, said council member Rachel Tieger, "I've been getting a very mixed reaction."

She said initial resistance to the idea of giving up plastic shopping bags is understandable. "Change is difficult," Tieger said. "Plastic is in every part of our existence, every day, every moment -- and to suddenly say it's bad is jarring . . . people get defensive. But it's about building general awareness."

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