Southampton and East Hampton towns both voted to ban the use of single-use plastic grocery store bags Thursday night, making it a punishable offense for stores to offer plastic bags to their customer everywhere east of Speonk on the South Fork.
The Southampton rule will go into effect on Earth Day, April 22, 2015, while the East Hampton rule will go into effect on Sept. 22, 2015, five months after Earth Day.
In both towns, any retailer caught breaking the ban will be fined up to $1,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 15 days.
The decision proved most controversial in Southampton, where Councilwoman Christine Scalera and Councilman Stan Glinka voted against it and the other three board members voted for it.
Ms. Scalera said she believed education campaigns about the environmental benefits of reusable bags, many of which she has worked on for the past three years, have proven effective at changing Southampton residents’ shopping behavior.
Calling the move an “overreach of government,” she said that amount of plastic bags found in recent beach cleanups has plummeted 67 percent, while recycling at the town transfer stations has increased 43 percent due to education.
“Education without prohibition does work. It just has to be done right as we have done in the Town of Southampton,” she said. “Our residents and businesses have proved to be able to be environmentally responsible without the threat of prohibition.”
Ms. Scalera added that she believes the prohibition could hinder Southampton’s effort to bring a grocery store to the depressed community of Riverside, which has long been unable to attract a store that sells healthy foods.
Mr. Glinka said he believes the move will be detrimental to the business community and could open the town up to litigation.
Councilman Brad Bender, who co-sponsored the legislation and lives in the hamlet of Northampton, near Riverside, said he believes the ban will help the blight in that part of town.
“There are hundreds of these bags in my community and it is a big problem,” he said. “We can help clean up this community by banning these. I’ve never seen a paper bag stuck in a tree, but I’ve seen plenty of plastic bags stuck in trees. This also keeps them out of the stomachs of wildlife and fish.”
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said she hoped Southampton’s effort would spur other towns to jump on board with their own bans. The ban had originally been pitched as a regional effort, but Southold and Riverhead towns have been reluctant to sign on, saying they would consider supporting a ban at the county level.
Riverhead Town, which has more large stores that use single use plastic bags than any other East End town, has not yet held a public hearing on the issue, with the town board split on whether to even let the public weigh in on a ban.
In East Hampton Town, the measure passed in a four-to-one vote Thursday night, with Councilman Fred Overton voting against it.
Only one person spoke at the continuation of a public hearing on the bill Thursday night.
Jay Peltz, the general council for the Food Industry Alliance of New York, said he believes claims by supporters of the ban are false.
He said plastic bags in trees and on the ground should be treated as a litter problem, without the onus being placed on the retail food industry.
“Four-tenths of one percent of waste sent to landfills is plastic bags,” he said.
Over in Southold Town, which has taken no action on a ban despite a heavy turnout from advocates at a forum on the issue this past summer, the town is facing an unusual consequence of the newfound public concern about plastic bags.
Earlier this year, town residents were told they could throw all their recycleables — glass, paper, plastic and metal — in one bin for recycling. But plastic bags can’t be recycled using this “single stream recycling” method, which has increased recycling in the town 26 percent since it was implemented.
On its website this week, the town urged residents to not try to recycle plastic bags with their other recycling.
“These bags can jam and damage the machinery that sorts the recyclables,” according to Southold Town. “If you can’t bring your CLEAN plastic bags back to the store for recycling they should be placed with your regular trash.”