Get your nickels ready: Suffolk County bag law takes effect Jan. 1

It’s not the outright ban on plastic bags that some officials had sought in the past, but come Jan. 1, a bill that Suffolk County passed in 2016 will take effect — and you’ll pay a nickel for every non-reusable paper or plastic shopping bag provided by a store. Shoppers can avoid the fee by bringing their own reusable bags.

The bill was proposed shortly after another 2016 bill, which sought to ban plastic bags altogether, failed to gain enough support in the county Legislature.

The legislative intent of the nickel fee bill says data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicates that between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide every year, and that Americans use more than 10 billion paper bags each year. In addition, an estimated 14 million trees are cut down each year to make paper bags.

The plastic bags do not biodegrade and are often harmful to birds and sea life, officials said.

Exceptions to the law will be plastic bags without handles that are used to hold “produce, meats, poultry, fish, dairy, dry goods or other non-prepackaged food items” to protect those goods from coming into contact with other items.

Bags carrying prescription drugs and garment bags also are exempt.

Businesses affected by the legislation include drug stores and pharmacies, grocery stores and supermarkets, convenience stores, food marts, apparel stores, hardware stores, office supply stores, among others.

Food service establishments located outside grocery stores, supermarkets and convenience stores also are exempt.

The law defines a reusable carryout bags as “a bag with handles that is specifically designed and manufactured for multiple reuse” and is made of machine-washable cloth or another material other than plastic, or is made of durable plastic that’s at least 2.25 mils thick. (A mil equals one thousandth of an inch.)

On the East End, Southampton and East Hampton towns have already banned plastic bags, but Riverhead and Southold have not.

Environmentalist John Turner of the Seatuck Environmental Association, who backed the outright ban, proposed the consolation bill at a July 2016 public hearing before the county Legislature. “Given the fact that a five-cent fee will likely reduce plastic bag use by anywhere from 60 percent to two-thirds, we’ll take two-thirds of a loaf over nothing anytime,” he said.

In other municipalities, Mr. Turner said, enacting such a fee did result in a reduction of paper and plastic bag use.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, voiced a similar opinion at that same hearing.

“We think the ban is more effective,” she said. “However, our philosophy always has been that if you can feed half the starving village, that’s what you do. You don’t wait until, you know, everyone dies, and then work on principle.”

The nickel fees go to the retailers, something County Executive Steve Bellone had sought to change when the bill was being considered. He had instead called for a portion of the fee to go toward environmental programs.

Mr. Bellone did not sign the new measure into law. It took effect automatically because there was no approval or veto within 30 days after the Legislature approved it.

George Nolan, counsel to the Legislature, said at the time that the reason the law doesn’t give the county even a portion of the fee was because “we run into the question of an unauthorized tax,” in which case the measure would need state approval.

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