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Suffolk County’s plastic-bag law carries the day

Edmond Wing of North Massapequa packs his reusable

Edmond Wing of North Massapequa packs his reusable bag at Stew Leonard's in Farmingdale on Jan. 5. Credit: Johnny Milano

Suffolk County’s fee on plastic bags is leading to more responsible decisions about bagging retail purchases and fewer of the bags ending up on roadsides and in landfills and waterways. This success should prompt similar action in Nassau County, and really, everywhere. And it should fuel a movement to reduce the rampant use of other disposable plastics that are also killing wildlife and polluting our water.

Starting Jan. 1, Suffolk required retailers to charge 5 cents for disposable plastic and paper bags. This month, a survey of 6,000 people showed that 43 percent of shoppers now pack their goods in reusable bags, up from 5 percent in the months before Jan. 1. Only 30 percent now use disposable plastic bags, down from 71 percent last year.

The rest use no bags, which can lead to impromptu juggling performances in the parking lot, or paper bags.

Before Suffolk implemented the fee, some naysayers claimed it would not reduce litter. Others argued the disposable bags should simply be banned, which seems extreme. And some people were aggravated that the 5-cent fee goes to retailers rather than environmental cleanup. But the results show Suffolk’s path makes sense. Over time, remembering to bring that reusable tote combined with the satisfaction that a personal choice can contribute to the larger good will help distaste for the plastic bags grow.

Last year, state legislators blocked a similar 5-cent law passed by the New York City Council. Instead, they should be passing one for the entire state. And barring action in Albany, Nassau County should pass its own law to limit use of the plastic bags.

When power broker Simcha Felder, the Brooklyn Democratic state senator who caucuses with Republicans, looked like he would succeed in stopping the city from imposing the fee a year ago, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called timeout and created a commission he said would report back with the right answer and proposed legislation. Instead, it offered many potential answers and no recommendation. Cuomo, with his liberal bona fides under attack from the left and an election looming, should grab the plastic bag issue by the handles and run with it. State residents throw out at least 23 billion bags a year, which amount to 500 million pounds’ worth.

Scientists say plastic bags have killed at least 267 species of wildlife, including whales, seals, fish, turtles and birds. And they are just part of the avalanche of discarded plastic products saturating our oceans and waterways, killing animals and getting into the food supply of humans.

The oceans are full of plastic, with 8 million-plus tons added each year. Disposable straws can be replaced by reusable metal ones. Plastic utensils and cup lids can be replaced by biodegradable ones.

Everything we do to trash the world will either need to be cleaned up or simply remain. Both are bad choices. The only sensible option is, as much as possible, to stop manufacturing and using the non-biodegradable, single-use products.

Success on plastic bags can beget similar success via new laws and behaviors to reverse our throwaway culture.

— The editorial board