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Source: Shelter Island Reporter

Suffolk Closeup: In the bag

BY KARL GROSSMAN

Posted: May 30, 2011
Originally Published: May 26, 2011

Little Southampton Village has done a big thing: moved against plastic bags. The Southampton Village Board has voted to prohibit village stores and restaurants from distributing plastic takeaway bags.

In so doing, Southampton Village became the first municipality in New York State to institute a ban on plastic bags.

Many nations — starting with little Ireland — and now municipalities across the United States have banned or put a “surcharge” on plastic bags.

Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher has introduced measures before the Suffolk County Legislature providing for county action. But thanks to plastics industry opposition, her bills got nowhere.

The last bill authored by Ms. Viloria-Fisher, the panel’s deputy presiding officer and an East Setauket resident, began: “Data released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year … It is estimated that plastic bags account for over 10 percent of debris that washes up on U.S. coastlines … Plastic bags can have a devastating effect on wildlife; birds can become entangled in the bags and different species of sea life can die from ingesting plastic bags that they mistake for food … Plastic shopping bags are made from polyethylene, a thermoplastic made from oil. Accordingly, reducing the use of plastic bags will decrease our dependence on foreign oil.”

All very sensible. This 2009 measure set a 5-cent “surcharge” on plastic takeaway bags.

Leading the opposition to the Viloria-Fisher bills was Bonny Betancourt of the American Chemistry Council representing the plastics industry. She also led in opposing the Southampton measure, blasting it before the Village Board.

But in a profile of governmental courage, the Southampton board did what the Suffolk Legislature did not: it moved ahead and passed its bill on plastic bags.

“The Village of Southampton has propelled itself to the forefront of this critical movement, which is sweeping across the nation and the globe,” said Tara Bono, program coordinator of the Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, who also spoke before the Village Board. Her group sought action, too, on the Viloria-Fisher measures.

“This is a very strong statement from a very small village on Long Island and I’m very proud to be able to sit here and vote on this,” Southampton Mayor Mark Epley said as the board voted on April 26. For doing thorough research on the issue, he credited Southampton Advocates for the Village Environment (SAVE).

Governmental action on plastic takeaway bags first began in Ireland in 2002 with that nation enacting a 15-cent charge on each plastic takeaway bag. And a lot of plastic bags were being distributed in Ireland — 1.2 billion a year in a nation of four million. That quickly resulted in a 90 percent reduction in their use. Irish people now overwhelmingly use reusable totes.

“We can no longer view plastic bags as an item of cheap convenience,” comments Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. They are a major component of litter, she emphasized, and “an enemy to thousands of marine and avian species.” She said her group “looks forward to advancing similar legislation in other municipalities across New York State and Connecticut.”

The Southampton Village law is to take effect in six months. It has teeth. Violators are subject to a $1,000 fine and up to 14 days in jail.

Meanwhile, news came last week that Southampton Town is considering a town law mirroring the village law. “It’s just a great and very doable thing that we can do as a community to improve our sustainability and to decrease the waste that goes into our landfills,” said Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst.

It’s high time for action by Suffolk, too, and other counties, and New York State and other states, to deal with what’s become a ubiquitous environmental menace.