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When it comes to plastic, residents say habits can change

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn last month introduced a package of bills aimed at reducing plastic litter countywide.

Under the proposal, restaurants would be banned from providing plastic straws, except to those with disabilities whose conditions necessitate their use. Restaurants would instead be required to provide a biodegradable alternative, such as paper straws.

The proposed legislation states that Americans collectively use 500 million plastic straws per day, “despite the fact that most people do not need a straw to drink their beverage.” It also states that straws are frequently ingested by marine life, which can cause death.

Polystyrene products would also be restricted, unless used to store eggs, raw meat, pork, fish, seafood and poultry, according to a press release. Styrene has been classified as a potential human carcinogen by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

The final bill would ban county concession stands from distributing single-use cups, utensils or beverage straws made from non-biodegradable substances, and require the county to install bottle-filling water stations at its facilities.

Three separate public hearings were held on each measure in Riverhead Tuesday — with the overwhelming sentiment summed up by Abigail Field of Cutchogue: “People have habits, but habits can change.”

Various representatives from environmental groups testified that plastic is already harming the local environment.

Kimberly Durham, the necropsy program director for the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, said that plastic straws in particular can be easily ingested by wildlife and results in injury. “I have observed the horrific consequences of plastic straws, Styrofoam and other debris on marine wildlife,” she said.

According to Colleen Henn, a coordinator for the Eastern Long Island Surfrider Foundation, the group has removed three tons of trash from local beaches since June 2017 and about 90 percent of the trash was plastic. Last summer, they spearheaded the “Strawless Suffolk” effort, during which 60 restaurants agreed to provide an alternative to plastic straws. “We were met with so much interest, so much enthusiasm,” she said.

Recently, the towns of East Hampton and Southampton and villages of East Hampton and Patchogue have all restricted the use of polystyrene products; Southampton Town recently approved a ban on plastic straws too.

Mark Haubner, vice president of North Fork Environmental Council, said that while cost factors are an issue for food establishments, the market will respond to the growing trends away from single-use plastics.

“If we send a signal, the plastics industry will listen,” he said in support.

Others testified that they didn’t think the legislation went far enough. “Plastic is a very insidious product,” said Mary Mulcahy of Greenport. “I personally would like to see [plastic straws and stirrers] banned entirely, but we start with baby steps.”

Bryan DeLuca, executive director of Long Island Aquarium, said in addition, he’d like to see Suffolk County follow the lead of East Hampton Town. Officials there recently banned the intentional release of balloons, another source of litter and harm to animals. “That would be a really big step for us,” he said.

Pending minor amendments, all three resolutions were recessed until the next meeting on March 26.

Photo caption: Abigail Field of Cutchogue speaks at Tuesday’s public hearing. (Credit: Tara Smith)

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