Editorial: Suffolk’s bag legislation lacks teeth

Catherine Hart

Hang on to those nickels and dimes that slide their way under the couch cushions. In 2018, they’ll come in handy at the grocery store.

A shortsighted compromise to a proposed countywide bag ban resulted last week in legislation that will require retailers to charge shoppers 5 cents for each paper or plastic bag they use. The nominal fee will likely be little more than a blip on the radar for most shoppers, who can easily rack up bills well in excess of $100 per trip.

Will an extra 30 cents persuade people to purchase and bring their own reusable bags? The answer is probably no. And in the meantime, our environment will continue to suffer, with single-use bags littering our communities and endangering wildlife.

Smaller municipalities across Suffolk have already taken more meaningful action. Southampton and East Hampton towns passed outright bans in late 2014. Most recently, Patchogue Village imposed a ban that took effect last week. This newspaper has advocated in the past for the countywide ban, which local officials had hoped would take the onus off them to pass local restrictions.

The new law, which still must be signed by County Executive Steve Bellone, has stirred up another controversy over who gets to keep the money collected, which as of now goes to the retailers. Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter called the legislation “ludicrous.” Southold Supervisor Scott Russell also argued the money could be used for a better purpose.

The problem is that the legislation currently lacks any mechanism through which the county could retrieve the money, leaving no option but to let retailers keep it. Legislator Al Krupski said the county would need the state’s approval to collect the bag fee from retailers. That should have been sorted out already; it comes across now as a concession to retailers, who steadfastly opposed an outright ban.

This won’t be the end of the bag ban brouhaha by a long stretch. As part of the new law, a committee will be created to determine its effectiveness. If use of plastic bags are not reduced by 75 percent in three years, officials say they will reconsider an outright ban.

The way this latest legislation is written, it’s a safe bet we’ll end up right back where we started.

Photo: Mattituck Marketplace shopper Catherine Hart won’t get stuck paying the single-use bag fee mandated by the county since she always has reusable bags with her. (Credit: Krysten Massa / Sept. 8, 2016)