Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: The Journal News

Plastic bags: More municipalities consider bans


Posted: March 5, 2013
Originally Published: March 2, 2013

It’s a cringe-inducing thought today, but it was once OK to throw away empty tuna cans and pickle jars. In the future, carrying groceries home in a disposable plastic bag might provoke that same reaction.

That’s the hope of environmental advocates who want to outlaw the lightweight plastic bags ubiquitous at supermarkets and other retailers in favor of reusable or recyclable bags.

The villages of Tuckahoe and Larchmont and the Town of Mamaroneck are the newest frontiers in that fight as they set public hearings on proposed plastic-bag bans.

“All we’re saying is when you bring something to the checkout counter, bring your own bag,” said Tuckahoe Trustee Stephen Quigley. “It’s not an unreasonable restriction and it’s doable by merchants and customers. We want to be on the forefront of a national trend.”

Just as recycling got a kick-start in 1980 when the small city of Woodbury, N.J., was first in the country to mandate it, advocates for bag bans are fighting community by community for their cause.

Recent plastic-bag bans in the City of Rye and Village of Mamaroneck came after East Hampton and Southampton on Long Island and Westport, Conn., set examples. Dozens of communities nationwide have either banned the bags or imposed a fee on their use, most in California.

“I’m looking forward to all the municipalities having similar laws so this can become a regional effort,” said Mamaroneck town Supervisor Nancy Seligson.

Jordan Christensen, Hudson Valley program coordinator for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said there has been a snowball effect.

“In the last eight to 12 months, it’s been every week you get a Google alert. This city banned bags. This country banned bags. There’s no stopping it,” she said.

Advocates point to the environmental hazards of the bags, which can clog sewers, choke marine animals and litter parks.

“It’s extremely important for us as a coastal waterfront community to keep bags from going into storm drains and rivers to protect the fish and wildlife,” said Mamaroneck Village Manager Richard Slingerland.

Bans and fees can be effective in curbing plastic bag use. After Ireland imposed the equivalent of a 30-cent-a-bag fee in 2002, use of plastic bags dropped by 90 percent within weeks.

Americans use about 100 billion plastic bags a year, which translates into 318 bags a person. Bill Sheehan, executive director of the nonprofit Product Policy Institute, said that communities can measure their bag use by multiplying that figure by their population.

Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties are home to nearly 1.37 million people, which means that more than 435 million bags are used locally each year. That’s 6 million bags alone in the Village of Mamaroneck, where Toy Box owner Steven Josephson says he uses 10,000 a year.

“You can’t go anywhere in the county without seeing bags littering the landscape,” said professor Lin Harmon, director of environmental law programs at Pace University. “Along the Bronx River Parkway, I see plastic bags caught in bushes. Plastic bags are so lightweight. I see them blow right out of city trash containers.”

Harmon said bag bans are springing up from grass roots movements just as recycling and clean water laws did a generation ago.

“Where the problem arises is often where the solution is found, and sometimes it spreads to a much wider area,” Harmon said. “On the local level, people take pride in their communities and don’t want plastic bags lying around. In larger political jurisdictions, the problems become more diffused.”

As a Rockland County legislator, Connie Coker of Nyack urged a ban on bags in 2008. When that stalled, she unsuccessfully pushed for a nickel charge on their distribution.

“Some legislators were concerned that it was adding a cost to buying food,” she said. “What I did get was requiring stores to provide recycling.”

Westchester passed a similar law that same year and then, in 2009, it became a state mandate for retailers to provide recycling receptacles for plastic bags.

In 2010, after a wave of bans were adopted in California, Coker tried again, but the poor economy deflected interest. “I got criticism from my colleagues for focusing on these kinds of things instead of the dire situation in the county,” she said.

Alden Wolfe, D-Suffern, vice chairman of the Rockland County Legislature, said the county has passed some environmental initiatives, including banning Bisphenol A (BPA), promoting green building standards and curbing Styrofoam.

“When we eliminated Styrofoam from county property, I got a call from someone in Los Angeles,” Wolfe said. “It’s very exciting when we do something on the local level in Rockland County and can serve as inspiration to one of the largest cities in the country.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has pushed a wide array of environmental and public health initiatives, including the nation’s first ban on smoking in restaurants and bars in 2002 that has spread to thousands of cities and more than two dozen states. But a 2008 plan to charge a 6-cent fee on plastic bags failed.

Tuckahoe’s Quigley noted that, unlike in New York City, where Bloomberg’s every move is subject to intense political scrutiny, the village is free to act.

“We’re a much better incubator for these types of innovations,” Quigley said. “There is none of this personal political stuff. The board will vote up or down based on the effectiveness of the law.”

Quigley is hopeful that the move will slip under the radar of the plastic bag industry, which has filed lawsuits and public relations campaigns in the wake of similar laws.

“I don’t think we’ll have anybody coming from the plastic bag industry to our village of 6,500 people,” Quigley said.

Jennie R. Romer, the Atlantic region director of the Clean Seas Coalition and founder of plasticbaglaws.org, said the plastics industry has fought bans with lawsuits, newspaper ads and lobbying efforts.

“They’ve wasted a lot of cities’ money and time,” she said. “It is on the industry’s radar and they are willing to go after small towns. They’ve sued towns of 10,000 people in California.”

The lawsuits are getting dismissed and communities have not been quelled, Romer said, adding that she gets emails every few days from elected officials and environmental groups in the Lower Hudson Valley.

“In the next few months, we’ll see a lot more suburban communities adopting these types of ordinances,” she predicts.