The Suffolk County law involving the fee is intended to...

The Suffolk County law involving the fee is intended to encourage consumers to use fewer disposable bags, which can end up clogging waterways or contaminating the ground. Credit: Randee Daddona

On Jan. 1, Long Islanders rang in the new year and a new charge at checkout in Suffolk County: 5 cents per disposable shopping bag.

The bag fee has been long in coming, but for some, it came as a surprise. On social media, users shared frustration and questions on the first days of the charge.

“Anytime there’s change and it’s inconvenient or requires us to do things we don’t normally do, change is scary,” said Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), the bill’s sponsor. “My feeling is that the first few weeks there will be a lot of questions.”

Here are some of the biggest questions, explained.

Wait, where did this come from?

The Suffolk County Legislature passed the bill — a bipartisan effort — in 2016. The charge applies to both paper and plastic bags.

The law is intended to get consumers to use fewer plastic bags. Even better is if they bring their own reusable bags, proponents have said. Spencer said only about 2 percent of plastic bags are recycled and end up clogging waterways and roads.

“Plastic is a threat to our marine life and our recycling centers and our coastal beauty,” Spencer said. “This is something that’s totally preventable.”

Is Suffolk the only county with a law like this?

Nope. Similar legislation has popped up all over the country. Washington, D.C., and several counties in Maryland have similar laws. So does Chicago and the state of California, where consumers have been paying 10 cents per disposable bag since 2015. The European Union, China and India all have placed fees or an outright ban on plastic bags.

On Long Island, the City of Long Beach already has its own 5-cent bag fee. The towns of Southampton and East Hampton have long banned the use of single-use plastic bags.

I thought I needed to pay only for grocery bags. Why was I charged at the drugstore, mall and elsewhere?

The law requires all “covered stores” that offer people a bag for carrying purchased merchandise to charge 5 cents per plastic or paper bag. Covered stores means “drugstores, pharmacies, grocery stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, food marts, apparel stores, home center and hardware stores, stationery and office supply stores, and food service establishments located within grocery stores, supermarkets, convenience stores or food marts,” according to the bill.

Are there any exceptions?

The bill offers a few exemptions. The paper bags used for prescription medication at pharmacies are exempt, though the store may still charge you if you want a plastic bag with it. According to the law, customers also do not have to pay for garment bags or bags for meat, dry goods and produce without handles — the clear plastic kind you may find in the produce section, for example.

Restaurants and food establishments are also exempt, so you won’t be expected to pay 5 cents at the drive-through window or your local pizza shop.

So who’s getting the money?

The money from the charge goes to the stores, not Suffolk County. The county isn’t allowed to collect the money without state approval, which it doesn’t have.

“It’s the only choice to have the fee go to the store,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

The decision also helps stores offset the cost and burden of informing customers and changing their operations to help limit bag use, Spencer said. Plastic bags typically cost about 2 cents, so stores could earn about 3 cents per bag sold. Paper bags cost closer to 8 cents but are less popular.

However, the county could still benefit. Legislators hope that fewer bags means less debris that must be cleaned up from waterways and clogged storm drains. The law requires the county Department of Health Services to monitor the use of plastic bags, including any cost savings for the county that stems from a reduction in use.

Spencer said whether bags will be treated as a sales-taxable purchase is still up to the state. Stores are charging that way for the time being, but guidance expected from the Department of Taxation and Finance may change that.

How much money are we talking about exactly?

For the consumer that chooses to continue using disposable bags, the cost will depend on how many bags they use. Say a family uses 10 plastic bags on a typical weekly shopping trip, that’s 50 cents a week, or about $26 a year. If the bags are taxed as purchased items, they’d pay an extra $2 or so in combined state and county sales tax.

How will this help the environment?

Advocates say the law will reduce plastic bag consumption and reduce the number of bags that end up in waterways. Plastic bags never truly biodegrade, instead producing plastic pellets in the water supply or leaking toxins into the ground.

Lesser demand for bags also means fewer bags will be created in the future. Both paper and plastic bags require fossil fuels and large amounts of resources to create.

“This isn’t about raising money. We don’t want people to ever spend a nickel on a bag,” Esposito said. “The objective is to change the behavior, to get people to bring their own reusable bag to the store.”

Initial findings suggest that bag fees and bans are a promising way to address pollution, according to Scientific American.

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