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Suffolk hearing eyes plastic bag ban

Environmentalists, students and civic groups squared off against

Environmentalists, students and civic groups squared off against retailers and the plastics industry Tuesday night, March 22, 2016, over a proposed Suffolk law to ban distribution of single-use plastic bags like these, seen in an undated photo. Credit: Newsday / Jim Peppler

Environmentalists, students and civic groups squared off against retailers and the plastics industry Tuesday night over a proposed Suffolk law to ban distribution of single-use plastic bags.

At the conclusion of the 4 1/2 hour hearing, 57 people had spoken in favor of the ban and five were against it.

Under the measure, sponsored by Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), retail stores could not provide the thin single-use plastic bags for carryout items. Paper bags could be sold at checkout for 10 cents each and reusable bags could be sold for a minimum of 10 cents. Customers paying with food stamps or using other public assistance would get paper or reusable bags free.

The proposed legislation has revived a debate over banning plastics in Suffolk that dates to 1988 and was last raised in 2008. The county has enacted other landmark environmental laws over the years, including a local bottle bill and a ban on sudsy detergents.

Backers of the plan say the bags pollute local waterways and litter beaches and roadways.

Critics say most bags are reused and that the legislation would burden retail businesses, and hurt low- and moderate-income people who cannot afford to pay for paper or reusable bags.

“It’s going to be one of the classic Suffolk legislature battles,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a nonprofit environmental group.

The debate crosses party lines.

Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) has expressed concern about the impact of the proposal on low-income residents.

Republican Legis. Robert Trotta, of Fort Salonga, who is a fisherman and dislikes plastic bags in local waters, is leaning in favor.

“It’s big, its bold and the opposition is scared of change, I get that,” said Spencer. “But I’ll sit down with anyone to address their problems — and if a store doesn’t have to provide plastic, it’s going to save them money in the long run.”

Jay Peltz, vice president of Food Industry Alliance of New York State, Inc., which represents 21,000 grocery stores statewide, said the legislation is based on “false, exaggerated and uncorroborated claims,” and that plastic bags constitute only a small portion of the waste stream.

Peltz also said Suffolk cannot adopt a ban without producing an environmental impact statement as required by the state Environmental Quality Review Act.

Local supermarket officials said the ban would create logistical problems for checkout clerks, delays and backlash from customers over new fees.

“There will be ferocious opposition,” said Jon Greenfield, president of Greenfield’s ShopRite, which operates four stores, including one in Commack. “But the fees won’t last.”

Among those who testified at the hearing Tuesday night were students from Brentwood High School, John F. Kennedy Middle School in Port Jefferson Station, Selden Middle School and Smithtown High School. Among the eight Brentwood students who spoke were juniors Lilia Zetrene, Jessica Guerrero and Chelsea D’Agrella.

The students conducted an award-winning research project on the bags’ effect on marine life. They found plastic bags become microplastics and become part of what is known as marine snow, which aquatic life feeds on to their detriment.

“It’s damaging to marine species that ingest and then comes into our ecosystem as our food source,” said Guerrero.

Suffolk would be the 12th local government in New York State to ban the plastic bags, county officials said. Southampton and East Hampton towns passed bans in late 2014. Patchogue Village banned the bags last year, but the law does not take effect until September.

The Suffolk County Legislature passed a ban on plastic bags, clamshell plastic containers used for takeout food and other items in 1988.

The measure was challenged in court but was upheld. Republican Legis. Tom Finley won approval of a revised bill that required supermarkets to give customers the option of using plastic or paper bags and made recycling of plastic bags voluntary. Democratic Legis. Vivian Viloria-Fisher in 2008 sponsored a measure to ban plastic bags, but it was never enacted.

Under Spencer’s legislation, the Suffolk County Health Department could impose fines of $500 on stores that continue to provide the single-use plastic bags.

The administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has not taken a position on the proposed legislation.

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