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Plastic bans in New York, Long Island: What you need to know

The public is raising awareness, as bans on plastic bags, straws, stirrers and Styrofoam continue to sweep U.S. and international governments. The goal is to reduce the use of single-use plastics.

During a news conference outside The Purple Elephant

During a news conference outside The Purple Elephant restaurant in Northport on July 2, 2018, Suffolk County Legis. Kara Hahn clutches a handful of plastic straws that were found on a local beach.  Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Plastic bans are having a moment here on Long Island and in New York.

Bags, straws, stirrers and Styrofoam — even intentionally releasing balloons — all have been targeted in recent months by lawmakers aiming to reduce plastic usage.

Fueled by public attention of garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean, dead whales with plastic in their stomachs and video of a turtle getting a straw removed from its nose, plastic bans have spread throughout the country and internationally. Long Island governments and New York State have now joined in.

"We're seeing society change right before our eyes, and it's an incredible moment. The public awareness has reached the point where the public policy is changing," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Farmingdale-based advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

The public, eager to do something to protect the environment, has latched onto the disposable plastic issue as a tangible way to help, according to Judith Enck, who teaches about plastic pollution at Bennington College in Vermont.

"You don’t see carbon dioxide. You do see plastic bags in trees, on the beaches," she said. "People have environmental concerns, and this is an issue people easily can be informed on, and get something done at the local level."

Here's an Earth Day update on what you need to know. 

1. When do the bans go into effect?

Thin plastic bags like those given out at grocery, convenience and retail stores will be banned statewide starting March 1. Paper bags will still be available, but it'll be up to local governments whether stores will have to charge a 5-cent fee for them. Environmentalists want people to bring reusable bags, since paper bags come with their own environmental price tag, such as more carbon-intensive shipping costs.

In Suffolk County, a ban on plastic straws and polystyrene foam containers, typically called Styrofoam, is expected to go into effect Jan. 1. County Executive Steve Bellone is scheduled to sign those bills Monday.

East Hampton and Long Beach, meanwhile, have passed bans on intentionally releasing lighter-than-air balloons because of litter.

Why the plastic hate?

Plastics are derived from fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, and these plastics litter roads and waters, harm marine animals and break down into microplastics that can be ingested by marine life and enter the food chain, ban advocates said.

Will the bans make a difference?

The banned plastics make up only a small percentage of the plastic waste stream and marine pollution. A 2015 study in the journal Science, for example, estimated that of the nearly 9 million tons of plastic waste entering the waters each year, the billions of straws add up to only about 2,000 tons. Plastic industry representatives said better management of garbage disposal in foreign countries and investments in recycling would be more effective.

Advocates said the bans are a start — and the low-hanging-fruit to turn the tide against a disposable culture that's producing a lot of waste.

"It's both symbolic and real," said Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council, of the plastic bans.

Plastic bags and straws, for example, can be swapped with alternatives as only a minor inconvenience for most people.

"These are items that are easily replaceable," he said. "It makes sense to start somewhere."

How many plastic bags do we actually use?

A state plastic bag task force report last year cited studies that found the average American family uses 1,500 single-use plastic bags each year, and collectively, the United States used 100 billion single-use plastic shopping bags in 2014.

"That's not chicken feed. That's significant itself," Goldstein said.

"You can identify any single piece of the plastic waste stream and say, 'It's not a problem.' Collectively, it amounts to a lot."

What about Suffolk's 5-cent bag fee?

The state law will replace Suffolk's, which had put a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags since 2018. That bill had reduced plastic bag usage 81.7 percent, translating into 1.1 billion fewer plastic bags used in the county last year, according to a county study.

Will there be a 5-cent fee on paper bags?

The state law gives local governments the option of imposing the paper bag fee. Suffolk is likely to have a 5-cent fee on paper. Nassau is not, though towns and cities will be able to implement a 5-cent fee that would be kept by stores.

Will plastic straws be outlawed in Suffolk?

You'll still be able to buy plastic straws at grocery stores. Food establishments will be able to keep a stockpile of plastic straws for those with a medical need for a straw.

It's important to note that other straws, such as those made of paper or other compostable material, would still be available.

What about juice boxes?

The law exempts juice boxes and other beverages that come with an attached plastic straw.

What's next in the anti-plastic movement?

Expect to see environmentalists push for a statewide ban on polystyrene next year.

Also, look for crackdowns on other single-use plastics, such as disposable forks, knives and spoons, and have them replaced with compostable materials.

And watch as environmentalists try to tackle how manufacturers and shippers package material.

"The next horizon here is it's really important to address single-use plastic packaging," Enck said.

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