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Source: Long Island Business News

Activists, stores spar over plastic bags

BY GREGORY ZELLER

Posted: June 29, 2011
Originally Published: June 29, 2011

Paper or plastic? The law may decide for you.

At least, the law of Southampton Village, which in April became the first New York municipality to ban plastic bags from retail stores. Village ordinance now requires either reusable bags or paper bags meeting strict recycling standards.

The village ban fuels a growing national trend against “single-use” plastic sacks. Plasticbaglaws.org, an online resource for municipalities considering “single-use legislation,” lists bans, restrictions and fees in 15 states and the District of Columbia. In 2009, Westport, Conn., became the first town east of the Mississippi to enact a ban, and now the Town of Southampton and East Hampton Village are making inroads.

Environmentalists are elated. In a written statement applauding Southampton Village, Citizens Campaign for the Environment Long Island Program Coordinator Tara Bono cited a “critical movement … sweeping across the nation.”

But anti-ban activists insist the growing number of local laws will have deleterious economic and environmental effects. Patricia Brodhagen of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, an Albany-based trade association whose members include King Kullen, Waldbaum’s and other major chains, pulled no punches.

“We do not disagree with the goal of reducing single-use bags, both for environmentally and, honestly, self-interested economic reasons,” Brodhagen said. “But we don’t believe banning plastic bags is the answer.”

Brodhagen, who testified against the Southampton Village ban during hearings on the village’s proposed ordinance and in June did the same during Town of Southampton hearings, recited a grocery list of problems, starting with cost-prohibitive requirements in the village ordinance for acceptable paper bags.

“The bag that fits the bill is expensive,” Brodhagen said. “There’s an economic argument there.”

But there’s an environmental argument, she added. “With paper versus plastic, one is not environmentally preferable to the other,” she said. Increasing paper use increases water usage, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, she added, and legislation driving businesses to paper has downsides outweighing any upside, environmentally or economically.

Ban backers disagree. In the written statement supporting Southampton Village, Bono wrote: “Across the world, consumer habits have changed dramatically after single-use bag legislation was introduced.” And Jonathan Cunitz, who drafted Westport’s influential ordinance, said such bans do drive consumers to reusable options.

The village ordinance was drafted by the Southampton Advocates for the Village Environment Committee, after members consulted with Cunitz, according to SAVE committee Chairman Roger Blaugh.

“Our attorney worded our local ordinance to comport with New York state law, but the Westport law was absolutely the basis,” Blaugh said.

And Westport was absolutely the inspiration. Southampton Village is very similar to the Connecticut town, Blaugh noted, surrounded by natural waterways, and the bag laws “are a reflection upon the magnificent natural beauty of the area.”

“We cannot continue to dump in our waterways,” he said.

Cunitz said the ban-the-bag idea faced little retail resistance while preparing its 2008 campaign, though it was challenged by paid lobbyists representing supermarkets and the chemical industry.

“Chemical industry lobbyists are very active nationally,” Cunitz noted. “They do anything to protect the sale of plastic resin.”

Westport spent the six months between the adoption and the enforcement of its ordinance on public-awareness campaigns, including store signage and a contest to design official “Westport bags.” Cunitz shared these and other ideas with officials in Southampton Village and the Town of Southampton, with whom he’s consulted directly.

Members of the SAVE Committee have already begun a walkthrough of the retail community, Blaugh noted, handing out copies of the local ordinance and a fact sheet answering frequently asked questions. “We’re making sure retailers understand the spirit and the specifics of the law,” he said.

Anyone who thinks the spirit of the law is to exclusively discourage the use of plastic bags is wrong, he added.

“The spirit of the law is really to encourage the bring-your-own-bag philosophy,” Blaugh said. “When asked ‘paper or plastic,’ the answer should be ‘neither,’ I brought my own.’”

To help ingrain that mindset, SAVE has already contacted representatives of the Southampton Union Free School District, hoping to team up on a design-a-reusable- bag contest. “That’s the core of our legislation,” Blaugh noted. “Not the elimination of one product or another, but the use of reusable shopping bags.”

Brodhagen reiterated the Food Industry Alliance’s belief that local bans do more harm than good, and suggested stricter recycling protocols. She cited the New York state’s Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse and Recycling law, as a better option, requiring retailers to establish and promote at-store plastic-bag recycling programs.

Brodhagen offered a vague assessment of bag-banning’s potential effect on retail costs. “Food stores make a penny on the dollar and we can’t just absorb increased costs,” she said. But proponents of new ordinances said there’s no evidence supporting such concerns.

“There are dozens of countries and cities around the world that ban plastic bags, and costs haven’t risen dramatically because of it,” Cunitz said.

At the Waldbaum’s supermarket on Main Street in Southampton Village, considerable changes are expected when the new ordinance kicks in Oct. 15. A store manager who declined to give his name noted a large majority of his current customers prefer plastic and said only a few bring reusable bags.

What will the new ordinance cost? “I don’t know exactly how much,” the manager said. “But I know paper bags cost about five times more than plastic.”