Countywide ban on styrofoam, single-use plastic will have effect on local businesses

Examples of recyclable plastic containers and paper straws that are in accordance with the county’s new regulations. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

The push to reduce single-use plastics to combat pollution began on a voluntary basis. Last year, Suffolk County officials introduced the “Strawless Suffolk” initiative, a countywide effort asking restaurants to forgo plastic straws.

Less than a year after that initiative began, the push will no longer be voluntary.

The days of single-use plastic items such as straws, cups, plates and cutlery, along with Styrofoam cups or containers, are nearing an end in Suffolk County. County lawmakers passed three related bills last week aimed at reducing single-use plastics and will force businesses that have used those items to begin to find alternatives.

“The scale of the worldwide single-use plastics problem has become an ever-increasing threat to our environment and everything that relies on it, including human health,” said Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who sponsored the legislation.

The legislation comes two months after Southampton Town officials adopted a similar code amendment. The bills passed April 9 will allow businesses and retailers eight months to adjust to the new prohibition of Styrofoam products and single-use plastics. The bills also prohibit the use of Styrofoam loose fill packaging, often used to occupy void space.

The reaction from local restaurants was mixed, as some owners were just learning of the change.

“I’m kind of just really taken aback,” said Dion Hope, manager of Shadees Jamaican Restaurant in Riverhead. “I had heard about it … I didn’t know that they were going to really pass this. We’re takeout, so all of our products are Styrofoam.”

She said she expects the ban will impact her business, which has been open for two years.

“I’m not a cruel person at all and everything about the environment is what I take in,” she said. “But being a business owner and them doing this … it’s ludicrous.”

Ms. Hope said restaurants will likely need to increase prices to make up for the difference in costs. She said that while she has priced alternate product types in the past, she doesn’t see them as economically feasible.

“As a consumer, if I patronize a place, I’m going to get penalized for a dollar or two more because the law has stated so? There’s no way around saying it. It would tremendously hurt going from an $18-$21 box of Styrofoam goods to a $32-$54 box … what are they doing to accommodate a business that has purchased their products — their inventory?”

Melvin Recinos, owner of Lucia Restaurant in Mattituck, which opened three years ago, said he has already made the shift from plastic straws and Styrofoam boxes to biodegradable and recyclable products. He said the cost of the new products is at least 40% greater.

“I heard about this two or three months ago,” he said, referring to preliminary news reports on the countywide proposal. “They said they’re not going to allow Styrofoam anymore because of all the contamination and because they’re not recyclable. So, we switched to recycled plastic for our to-go containers.”

Approximately 85% of Lucia’s orders are takeout, Mr. Recinos said. He said he plans to raise prices this summer to make back the money he’s losing now, but he supports the initiative regardless and said it should have been put into effect long ago.

“We are using the same Styrofoam containers for years and they probably could have changed it 10 years ago, but they didn’t,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect businesses all that much … we can raise prices a little.”

An employee at Crazy Beans in Greenport said the restaurant’s owners have already switched to paper straws, but are for now still using plastic utensils.

In accordance with the bills, biodegradable straws and stirrers may be provided only upon request at sit-down food and beverage venues. For customers with medical conditions, plastic straws must be in stock and available for use. Also exempt from the bill are Styrofoam products that are used to store uncooked eggs, raw meat, pork, fish, seafood and poultry.

Suffolk County park concessionaires are also subject to the single-use plastic prohibition and products shipped to the county will need to be packaged in backyard compostable or biodegradable material.

The ban takes effect Jan. 1, 2020, allowing “businesses time to adjust inventory and rules,” according to a press release from the county legislature.

The new legislation will be enforced by the New York State Department of Health Services, either by way of inspection or as a follow up to a complaint.

“This is minimal, yet substantial to a business,” Ms. Hope said.

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