Shoppers, lawmakers offer mixed bag of opinions on 5-cent charge

Suffolk County bag law

A new Suffolk County law requiring retailers to charge 5 cents for each paper or plastic bag they provide to shoppers has local residents and lawmakers offering up a wide range of opinions.

The bill, which the county Legislature approved Thursday and which aims to discourage single-use bags, was sponsored by Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport) after he failed to gain support earlier this year for a countywide ban on plastic bags. The ban was favored by environmentalists and some local elected officials, but bag manufacturers and grocery store owners said it would put jobs in jeopardy and drive up costs for consumers.

North Fork County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), who has supported a countywide plastic bag ban, said he supported the nickel charge for single-use bags because he believes it will reduce litter.

“The whole point of the fee is to make people think twice about using the bags,” he said. “Everyone is tired of seeing them in the fields and creeks. We can live without them — we didn’t use them for a long time and I think we can do it again.”

If County Executive Steve Bellone approves the legislation, the law will take effect Jan. 1, 2018. Mr. Bellone did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but his office told Newsday he is likely to sign the bill.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said in a statement that she believes the law will be effective and noted that Washington, D.C., experienced a significant reduction in plastic and paper bag usage after passing a similar measure.

“Plastic bags litter communities, kill wildlife and pollute our oceans,” Ms. Esposito said. “Plastic bags are a mistake of the past — reusable bags are the solution for our future.”

One of the more controversial aspects of the legislation approved last week is that it allows retailers to keep whatever money they collect from the new fee.

Mr. Krupski said the state’s approval would be required for the bag fees to go to the county instead of to retailers and said he planned to contact state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) to advocate for that change.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter questioned the legality of the county imposing such a fee on stores without collecting the revenue for itself and described the law as “a ludicrous piece of legislation.”

“Giving the money to the stores is just silly — if you’re going to do anything it should go to municipalities for cleaning up of the bags,” he said, adding that he believes the law will have “zero effect” on the prevalence of single-use bags.

“When you go grocery shopping and get charged 30 cents for bags, you won’t blink an eye,” he said.

Mr. Walter and Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell have both said they support a countywide ban because they believe it’s the only equitable approach and would level the playing field for businesses across Suffolk.

On Thursday, Mr. Russell said that although he believes such a ban is the best solution, he’s pleased the issue is being addressed, even if “it might not be the perfect solution.”

“I’m opposed to stores retaining the 5 cents and think the money could be used for better purposes,” Mr. Russell added, “but I also recognize the necessity of trying to get more players on board.”

Some shoppers said Thursday they believe the nickel charge for bags is a good way to remind people to use their reusable bags.

Laquetta Goodwin of Riverhead, who was shopping with her friend Janet Reed at the Gala Fresh supermarket on Route 58, said she recently purchased reusable grocery bags, but did not bring them with her this time.

“Everything adds up,” she said about being charged 5 cents per bag.

Catherine Hart, who was loading her car with groceries in reusable bags after shopping at the Mattituck Marketplace, said she stopped using plastic bags for environmental reasons.

“I think it’s a good thing,” she said of the new fee, adding that she hopes it will encourage other shoppers to use reusable bags.

“I see plastic bags blowing across roads and driveways and in the water,” she said.

Sarah Phillips, president of the Greenport Business Improvement District, said Thursday that although she wasn’t prepared to speak on behalf of the BID since its members hadn’t yet met to discuss the legislation, she believes the fee on bags is a positive step.

“Overall, the ‘canvas bag movement’ is something that is encouraged, especially on the North Fork,” she said.

Liz Alexander, a spokesperson for Mr. Spencer, confirmed that customers using self-checkout counters will also have to pay, adding that the county is researching how other municipalities have handled the issue, including having customers scan bags before they use them or an honor system.

“They will be charged,” she explained, “but what the mechanism is, I can’t say what it will precisely be.”

When reached for comment about the new law, King Kullen senior vice president Joseph Brown said in a statement that his company has offered its customers reusable bags for more than 10 years and anticipates “greater demand in light of the new Suffolk bill.”

“However, we will continue to offer plastic and paper grocery bags as well, leaving all options available to our customers,” Mr. Brown said.

Charles Reichert, who owns the Southold and Greenport IGA stores, declined comment last Thursday, but has expressed support for a countywide ban in the past.

The law will be enforced by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services and retailers who do not collect the fee from customers will face a fine of $500 per offense, according to the bill.

The Legislature also approved the creation of a committee to gauge the law’s effectiveness by finding out if more people are taking reusable bags with them when they shop.

If the use of plastic bags isn’t reduced by at least 75 percent in three years, then the “idea of an outright ban can be revisited at a later date,” according to the legislation.

The Legislature approved the measure by a vote of 13-4, with legislators Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset), Lou D’Amaro (D-North Babylon) and Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) casting dissenting votes.

Legislator Bill Lindsay (D-Bohemia) was absent.

Ms. Anker — who supports a countywide ban on plastic bags — said while she appreciates Dr. Spencer’s efforts, she voted against the measure because, among other concerns, she believes the issue of having the state sign off on the fee should have been settled first.

“I don’t support this bill because we can’t keep nickel and diming residents, especially those on a fixed income as our seniors have been,” she said. “If there’s going to be a charge, then that money should go to the environment.”

Ms. Anker added that she voted in support of a companion bill that aims to educate the public during the year before the new law would take effect about how plastic bags have negatively affected the environment and encourage shoppers to use reusable bags.

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Photo: A trunk filled with groceries in the parking lot of Gala Fresh Farms in Riverhead, where the family used some reusable and some plastic bags. (Credit: Krysten Massa)