Editorial: Suffolk County needs to discuss plastic bag ban

10/15/2015 5:50 AM |

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In the years since the Suffolk County Legislature last discussed, then dropped, the idea of banning single-use plastic bags, here are some things legislators have chosen to take action on:

• Last week, Suffolk County legislators banned microbeads, those tiny plastic balls found in some shower gels that experts say are a danger to local waterways.

• Earlier this summer, the Legislature passed a ban on using camera-mounted drones in county parks, saying the unmanned aerial vehicles posed a threat to residents’ privacy. That ban was later vetoed by County Executive Steve Bellone.

• In June, Mr. Bellone signed a law that prevents pet stores from selling pets from breeders who have received violations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

• In February, Suffolk County banned the sale of powdered caffeine to kids under age 18.

• Two years ago, the legislators passed regulations on selling energy drinks to minors in county parks.

The legislators clearly saw enough reason to take up these issues, some of which are legitimate cause for concern about public safety. But while the threats posed by plastic bags may not seem as immediate as others, they at least warrant a frank discussion about the merits of enacting a ban.

Research on the effects of plastic and paper bags in the environment show that reusable bags meant for groceries and retail purchases are the safest for our ecosystem. Plastic bags pose hazards to wildlife and pollute our lands and bays, while paper bags damage the environment through the cost of their production. According to a 2005 study by the Scottish government, it requires roughly four times as much energy and more water to make a paper bag than a plastic bag, though the completed paper bags are much less likely to become litter.

But while many stores across the North Fork have willingly offered reusable bags, single-use plastic bags remain at our stores and supermarkets while local officials deflect responsibility to leaders at the county level.

Some local leaders’ concerns are valid. Rather than deal with a variety of potentially inconsistent municipal regulations, a county-wide ban would provide a simple solution that would put all businesses — big and small, eastern and western Suffolk — on even footing when it comes to increased costs.

And while other places that have banned plastic bags have found that some businesses exploit loopholes and continue polluting by using thicker plastic bags that degrade more slowly, both our neighbors in Southampton Town and a county in California have found success with their bans.

Things have changed since the 1990s, the last time the county looked seriously at a plastic bag ban. In the decades since, global warming and the threat posed by waste and pollution have been thrust into the spotlight.

As the environment continues to deteriorate — and thousands of single-use bags fly off the shelves each day across the county — it’s time for the Legislature to step up and revive talks about a bag ban. Perhaps then Suffolk legislators will see the same outpouring of support we’ve already seen at Town Board meetings and public forums on the East End.

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