A Suffolk bill calls for reducing the amount of plastic utensils...

A Suffolk bill calls for reducing the amount of plastic utensils and other disposable plastic food service items. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/Justin Tallis

It was nearly 60 years ago that the disillusioned college student at the heart of the film “The Graduate” was pulled aside by a family friend who told him, “There's a great future in plastics.”

We know better now. So does the Suffolk County Legislature, which can act to reduce the scourge of plastics.

In the 1960s, plastic was considered something like a miracle. It was strong, flexible, durable and cheap, able to take on many forms to fill many functions. Soon, it was ubiquitous. Now we're discovering the dangers of that ubiquity. Plastic breaks down into tiny microparticles that are being found everywhere. They're in the oceans and the air. They're in the food we eat and the beverages we drink. And they increasingly are in us: Microplastics have been found in the bloodstream, in human testicles and in placentas, in the liver and lungs and spleen and kidneys, and in breast milk.

And when plastics are in our bodies, so are the many chemicals added to plastics, like lubricants, solvents and flame retardants. Many are toxic. Some are carcinogenic. Their implications for human health range from tissue damage and allergic reactions to an increased likelihood of a heart attacks and strokes. Some chemicals in plastic disrupt the reproductive system and cause hormonal imbalances. One recent study found that exposure to microplastics caused a faster spread of certain cancer cells.

Clearly, we need to reduce our use and waste of plastics. That's what made so frustrating the failure of the State Legislature this month to pass a bill requiring companies to reduce, recycle and reuse more of their packaging. Now attention shifts to Suffolk's legislature, which is considering a more modest plastic reduction bill. Sponsored by Legis. Steve Englebright, the Skip the Stuff bill calls for reducing the amount of plastic utensils and other disposable plastic food service items given to take-out customers by restaurants and other businesses — items that often end up littering our environment.

It's not a ban. The bill — tweaked after feedback from fellow lawmakers, businesses and the county Health Department — allows a proprietor to ask a customer whether they want the utensils, post a sign saying that utensils will be provided if requested, or set up a self-service station so customers can take what they need. No summonses would be issued for one year while the Health Department runs a public education program to get everyone acclimated to the change. Some customers already are familiar with such options; some food delivery services ask you to check a box if you want plastic utensils.

The bill faces a vote in the Health Committee Thursday. If approved there, the full legislature would take it up next week. The bill should be passed. It's common sense, it saves money, it helps the environment and human health, and it would lead the way to a future that is not so entwined in plastic.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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