The debate over whether Riverhead and Southold towns should ban single-use plastic bags may soon be over.
Suffolk County legislators introduced a bill Tuesday to ban single-use plastic bags at retail stores across the county, a move both town’s supervisors have argued makes more sense than any town-wide ban.
Legislator Dr. William Spencer (D-Centerport) sponsored the bill and said it’s the right time to confront an ongoing issue.
“We know plastic has a major burden on the earth,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “For the most part we use it for a very short period of time, but then that plastic bag is around for thousands of years after that.”
A ban on plastic bags has been a hot topic locally, specifically in Southold Town where concerned residents have signed petitions and spoken at Town Board meetings in the past year hoping to spark action. The argument against a town-wide ban has centered on the unfair burden it places on businesses, since it could drive customers to a neighboring town that has no ban.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said in October that he would support a ban at the town level if Riverhead also agreed, but ultimately a county-wide ban would be ideal.
Mr. Russell said he supported the legislation proposed this week.
“Businesses might object, but since all businesses throughout the county are subject to it then, the playing field is level,” Mr. Russell wrote in an email. “That was my concern. That is still my concern. This proposal appears to address that.”
The secretary for Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said he is reviewing the information in the proposed bill before commenting. A spokesperson for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the same thing.
“It’s an issue we want to take a good, hard look at before coming to a final determination,” said Justin Meyers, a spokesperson for Mr. Bellone.
Dr. Spencer said he’s optimistic the bill could become reality because the Legislature is doing its homework on the topic and approaching it “in a responsible manner” that’s business friendly.
“I know it’ll be a hotly contested debate,” he said. “I’m not going to say I’m confident that this is a done deal because my colleagues have to make their own decision. I’ll be working to make sure they have all the information and I think there’s a good chance we can get this done.”
Two public hearings will be held, the latter near Earth Day in late April, so residents can voice their opinion. The first hearing is March 22.
North Fork Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) noted how bans currently exist in Southampton and East Hampton towns and New York City is considering its own ban. He said the county-wide ban would level the playing field for businesses in Suffolk.
“I am very pleased with the amount of support that I’ve received so far,” he said. “I’m confident that it will be approved.”
The support won’t be unanimous. Shortly after Tuesday’s Legislature meeting, Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) issued a press release in opposition.
Mr. Cilmi, a former business owner and chamber of commerce president, said the ban is “wrong on so many levels.”
He said the ban is akin to a tax on businesses and consumers, leading to “less competition, fewer jobs and higher prices for consumers.” He proposed an incentive-based program where consumers with reusable bags can receive a sales tax deduction.
Dr. Spencer said the goal is to change consumers’ habits to using more reusable bags. Paper bags, for now, would still be allowed, he said, and could be sold for 10 cents.
“If we change behavior to where people are using reusable bags, it’s going to save businesses money because now they’re not going to incur the cost of paying for the plastic bags,” he said. “But can you put a price on preserving the earth?”