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County passes law to charge for single-use bags


The Suffolk County Legislature adopted a new law last week requiring retailers to charge shoppers 5 cents for each paper or plastic bag.

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

The legislation — which aims to deter single-use bags across the county — was sponsored by Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport) after he failed to gain support earlier this year to impose a county-wide ban on the bags. The ban was favored by environmentalists and some elected officials, but bag manufacturers and grocery store owners said it would come at the expense of jobs and drive up costs for consumers.

County Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac), who represents Shelter Island and has supported a countywide ban, said she voted in favor of the nickel charge for single-use bags because it was a successful compromise. An outright ban “would certainly be ideal, but it wasn’t politically possible,” Ms. Fleming said.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said she believes the law will be effective. “Plastic bags litter communities, kill wildlife and pollute our oceans,” she 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  is that retailers are allowed to keep the money collected from the new fee.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty, who is in favor of a ban on the bags, said Monday he was “surprised” the 5-cent fee would go to retailers. A better solution, Mr. Dougherty said, would be for the county to collect the fee and use it for environmental purposes.

Ms. Fleming noted that “it’s not about the fee, its about shifting people’s habits” to bring their own reusalbe bags when shopping.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter questioned the legality of the county imposing a fee on stores without collecting the revenue for itself and described the law as “a ludicrous piece of legislation.” Mr. Walter added that the law will have “zero effect” on decreasing single-use bags.

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

Mr. Walter and Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell joined Supervisor Dougherty supporting a countywide ban because they believe it’s the only equitable approach and would level the playing field for businesses in Suffolk.

Shelter Island Green Options Advisory Committee (GOAC) Chairman Tim Purtell said charging customers a fee for the single-use bags will be an educational tool. Mr. Purtell noted that in some European countries, a fee was effective because “people just didn’t want to keep paying.”

Eight out of 10 Shelter Islanders believe the town should ban single-use plastic bags, according to a poll conducted by the GOAC released in June. And 80 percent of Islanders polled said they want the county to ban the bags.

The law will be enforced by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services and violators will face a fine of $500 per offense, according to the bill. 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.