Beginning on January 1, many local merchants in Suffolk County began charging customers 5 cents for each plastic or paper carry-out bag when they make purchases at retail stores.
The change results from a new county law that went into effect—although with a six-month grace period—at the beginning of the new year.
Approved in September 2016, the new law is meant to encourage shoppers to purchase and use reusable shopping bags for grocery and retail shopping instead of environmentally unfriendly paper and plastic single-use bags.
The Suffolk County Legislature pointed to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The world consumes between 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags every year, and most plastic bags break down over time into smaller, more toxic petro-polymers that contaminate soils and waterways. In addition, 14 million trees are cut down every year to satisfy America’s consumption of more than 10 billion paper bags annually, according to the EPA.
The new law does come with certain exceptions. Bags used to carry produce, meats, poultry, fish and dairy products are exempt from the fee. Smaller paper bags used to package prescription drugs at pharmacies are also exempt.
Under the new law, the alternative to paper or plastic bags could be a bag with handles made of cloth or durable plastic that is at least 2.25 mils thick.
The law will be enforced by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, and the fees that are collected from shoppers for disposable bags will be retained by the stores.
County Legislator Bridget Fleming, who supported the county’s new bag law, explained that putting the fee into a government fund would have been considered an “impermissible tax.”
Although there is a $500 fine for any violation of the law, Ms. Fleming said, the six-month grace period is intended to allow retailers and consumers some time to adjust. She added that she wants to stay in contact with local retailers and try to “mitigate” the impact of the new law.
Southampton Village adopted a ban on the use of disposable plastic shopping bags by retail store and food markets in 2011, with East Hampton Village following suit with its own plastic bag ban in 2012. East Hampton and Southampton towns then adopted bans on plastic shopping bags in 2015, the same year that the villages of Quogue, Sagaponack and Sag Harbor adopted their own plastic bag laws.
Ms. Fleming, who supported the ban in Southampton Town when she was a Southampton Town councilwoman, said on Friday that the new law is meant for other communities to follow the “creative incentive” of the towns and villages with plastic bag laws in place and further preserve the environment.
“We’ve seen the shift to the use of paper bags that have their own environmental impact,” Ms. Fleming said. “The purpose of this is to get people to bring their own bags and stop the consumption of single-use bags.”
Although the new law does add a fee for paper bags, it does not supersede any other ban on paper or plastic bags established by the towns and villages.
“Nobody is interested in hurting small businesses during the off season,” Ms. Fleming said. She added, “I’m very confident that this will make a huge environmental impact.”
The impact of the new law has already been felt.
Balfour Sangster, manager of the CVS on Pantigo Road in East Hampton, said the store’s cash registers were recently updated to display a prompt noting the 5-cent fee if patrons still want to use paper bags. Mr. Sangster added that the store was already complying with the local law on plastic bags.
“I think the customers were already environmentally conscious before this law, so there’s been very little adverse response to this,” he said. “I’ve noticed customers seem to be aware of the law and also deal with this at other retailers. But there haven’t been any bad reactions to it.”
Dede O’Connell, who works at The Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor, said that the store uses a plastic bag made with thicker material than the single-use bag banned by law, allowing for repeated use by customers. Ms. O’Connell added that the store has always had a sign on display saying, “Save the environment, bring your own bag,” and that it seems to be growing in effectiveness.
“More and more people have been bringing their own bags or just carrying out their purchases without a bag,” Ms. O’Connell said. “I think we’ll see more of a result once the visitors come in the summertime. For me, it’s just one more thing to remind the customer about.”
Other local retailers are taking time to adjust to the new law. A manager of Flying Point Surfing Sports, a store in Southampton, who asked not to be identified, said that the store has yet to charge customers for using either paper or plastic bags. The manager added that the store also gives customers recyclable plastic bags that are exempt from the Southampton law.
While the manager said that a discussion about the law will be had with the employees, for now the store is using the six-month grace period to figure out how the store will comply with the new law.
Flying Point’s general manager, Matt Guissrida, confirmed in a follow-up interview that the store uses plastic bags that are 2 mils thick and can be reused by customers in other locations. “We have this attractive bag so people can use it and take it to other places so people can see our logo,” Mr. Guissrida said.
In Westhampton Beach Village, where there was no plastic bag ban, Or Raitses, vice president of Best Market, said on Monday that staff members have had some customers complain about the new charge for plastic bags.
His response? “Talk to your legislators,” Mr. Raitses said, emphasizing that the decision is not up to the store.
Mr. Raitses said the store has made efforts to be environmentally friendly in the past by selling reusable bags to customers since the day the store first opened and offering “buy one, get one free” deals on reusable bags. He pointed out the benefits of the store’s reusable bags being woven and able to hold more weight than the typical single-use plastic bag.
While he said that he felt the new law “snuck up on people” without reminders to the public that the law was going to go into effect this year, Mr. Raitses thinks that people will become acclimated to the law by the end of the month.
“Some people want it the old way and you can’t change their minds, but we have to follow the law,” he said.
Someone who felt the lack of a reminder firsthand is Emmett Boone, manager of the Six Corners Liquors Inc. in Westhampton. Mr. Boone said on Monday that his store wraps purchases in paper bags, though he has seen many customers come in with their own tote bags recently. He added that he received no letters reminding him of the law taking effect and said he only heard about it through word of mouth.
“I think people with common sense know that this will help the environment,” Mr. Boone said. “I just wish people would’ve gotten a head’s-up about it first.”
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