It wasn’t quite the mixed bag of opinions expected at Thursday night’s Southold Town plastic bag ban forum, where the overwhelming majority of attendees spoke in favor of the ban.
The forum, which featured a panel of six representatives from all sides of the debate, came following a pitch to ban plastic bags across the East End started by members of the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association.
Southampton and East Hampton Villages successfully passed similar laws in 2011, requiring that “any person engaged in retail sales shall provide only reusable bags and/or recyclable paper bags as checkout bags to customers.” The laws place exemptions on plastic produce bags used for items like meats and veggies, and plastic bags measuring 28 by 36 inches or larger in size.
Fines range from $100 to $250 per offense, according to the village laws.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell led the forum, as town board members heard from about a dozen of the roughly 50 attendees.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch, and there is no such thing as a free lunch bag,” said panel member Bill Toedtler, president of the North Fork Environmental Council.
Mr. Toedtler served up a number of facts, explaining the usable lifespan of the single-use bags is just 12 minutes on average before they start to break.
Once disposed of, it takes anywhere from 20 to 1,000 years to degrade, he said, noting that animals who might ingest the bags would likely decompose before the bags do.
“It would be irresponsible to believe that we are not impacted by plastic debris in our water,” he said. “These free bags cost us far too much.”
Panel member Charles Reichert, owner of IGA in Southold and Greenport, spoke out starkly against the ban, saying it should only be imposed if it’s implemented throughout the region.
“We’re getting killed by what’s happening in Riverhead and if Riverhead doesn’t do this, we are going to be at a big disadvantage,” he said. “We can’t absorb the cost. This is a big deal.”
Mr. Reichert noted that the cost of paper bags is almost eight times the cost of single-use plastic bags, an increase he said that could break the bank for many local business owners.
He asked attendees if they knew the bags in question could be recycled, adding that he takes thousands of bags to be recycled every week.
Panel member Bob DeLuca of Group for the East End said that though they can be recycled, only about 8 percent of bags used nationally on average ever are.
He noted that as the bags break down, plastic particles can be consumed and have an impact on public health.
He said the bags are not exactly biodegradable, but more so “disintegrateable,” with remnants still remaining in the area’s water bodies.
Southold resident Dave Markel, who collected more than 300 signatures on a petition supporting a plastic bag ban, said “there was overwhelming support for a ban,” among community members with whom he spoke.
“Start locally,” he said. “Let’s go and lets be leaders in this important issue.”
Orient resident Bob Hanlon asked if it was possible that some sort of town charge or tax be put on the use of plastic bags to encourage people to recycle them, much like the refund on cans and bottles.
Mr. Russell said such a fee would have to be enacted on the county or state level, and could take years to put in place.
Questioning the business owners concerns, Annemarie VanHemmen of New Suffolk said the ban “should not be a cost for merchants.”
She proposed that customers should bring reusable bags of their own, or be charged for a paper alternative.
“It’s all mentality,” she said, noting that once such a cost hits the consumer, they would probably remember their reusable bags.
Dieter von Lehsten, co-chair of Southampton Town’s Sustainability Committee, which is pushing for a similar ban in South Fork towns, asked the Supervisor to “be the leader for our communities.”
“They are all considering town-wide bans,” he said. “If you, Supervisor Russell take the lead, they will follow.”
Mr. Russell said the next step in the process would be adopting a local law, which would require 30 days notice to the public and a public hearing prior to the vote.
He said while he does not anticipate having any additional forums on the topic, “there are a lot of mom and pop [shops] that we still have to talk with.”