The ubiquitous single use plastic bag could be considered an American icon. Floating on a light breeze through strip mall parking lots, they were the inspiration for the filmmakers who made “American Beauty” 15 years ago. The bags are also found in the bellies of sea animals and birds, and in the great big garbage patches in the centers of our oceans.
And the environmental community in Southold hopes their town becomes the first on the East End to ban them completely.
Southold Town held a forum on a potential regional plastic bag ban July 17 at town hall, but Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he doubts Southold would take the lead on what was initially intended to be a regional effort.
Riverhead, the only town that is geographically contiguous to Southold is unlikely to take up the issue any time soon, leading Southold business owners to worry that they will have to mark up their products to pay for paper bags at a time when they’re already being squeezed by the cut rate prices of Riverhead’s big box stores.
“I think it’s a big mistake to try to do this in Southold,” said Southold and Greenport IGA owner Charlie Reichert, one of the panelists at the forum. “We are getting killed by what’s happening in Riverhead. If Riverhead doesn’t do this, we are going to be at a big, big disadvantage.”
Mr. Reichert said paper bags cost him 8.7 cents each, while plastic bags cost just 1.7 cents, and he will need to pass that cost on to his customers.
“I agree that it should be done, don’t get me wrong, but it should be done by the county or the state,” he added.
Everyone in the audience who spoke was in favor of a ban.
David Markel, an estate liquidator with a shop in Southold, gathered more than 300 signatures on a petition asking Southold to take the lead on banning plastic bags.
He said that, while he was gathering signatures, about 75 percent of people gladly signed the petition, 10 percent opposed it and “the others didn’t care.”
“In my experience, there’s overwhelming support for a ban on plastic bags,” he said, adding that he doubts people will pay the cost of going to Riverhead to buy groceries.
“You’re going to be able to sell those reusable bags, and maybe you can donate the profit to the North Fork Environmental Council,” he said to Mr. Reichert. “If we don’t have an environment, we don’t have anything. Southold should be the start in a strong environmental movement. Maybe the movement can spread to Riverhead and other places. Let’s be leaders on this issue.”
Southampton Village and East Hampton Village have already banned single-use plastic bags, and Southampton Town Sustainability Committee co-chair Dieter von Lehsten tried to alley Mr. Reichert’s fear based on his experience there.
He said stores in Southampton Village charge people a small fee for paper bags, and give them a credit when they either bring those bags in or bring their own reusable bags.
“In no time at all, you will have no more expenses,” he said. “This has happened in East Hampton and Southampton Village.”
Mr. von Lehsten said business owners in both villages were given six months to use up their plastic bags and phase in the new program when it began. He added that it would take at least three years to implement state or county restrictions, while local governments have more control over banning plastic bags in the near future.
“Please be the leader for our communities,” he urged Mr. Russell. “Southampton and East Hampton are all considering it now. If you, Supervisor Russell, take the lead, they will follow immediately.”
Annemarie Van Hemmen of New Suffolk is from Holland, where plastic bags were banned quite some time ago.
“Everybody went up in arms. The store owners put boxes by the front of the store,” she said. “If you forget your own bags, you have the option of taking one of the boxes. They did make you pay for [paper] bags. There are plenty of jokes about cheap Dutch people. Well, very soon, people started bringing their own bags. It’s not the merchant’s problem. It’s your problem as a consumer.”
Ms. Van Hemmen added that she and many people she knows have far too many reusable bags, and she’d like to see drop boxes in Southold where people can donate their extra reusable bags to other people in the community who haven’t yet started using them.
Panelist Kevin Shannon of the Southold Business Alliance, who owns the store Complement the Chef in Southold, said he spoke with the owners of 7-Eleven and the Southold Fish Market, both of whom said they needed plastic bags. He said 7-Eleven owner Tony Cocheo told him very few people would think to bring tote bags to an impulse shopping store like 7-Eleven, while fish market owner Charlie Manwaring told him that plastic is the only way to contain the odors and dampness of fish.
“These are just some of the issues that certain businesses are confronted with,” he said. “This isn’t just as easy a question as it seems.”
Panelist Debbie O’Kane of North Fork Audubon said her organization has collected more than 600 signatures “from a true cross-section of Southold residents supporting a ban on plastic bags.”
She said at least 267 different species of wildlife have suffered from ingestion of marine litter, and in Europe’s North Sea, the stomachs of 94 percent of all birds contain plastic, while a dead sperm whale in Greece was recently found with 100 plastic bags in its stomach.
She said 100 billion plastic bags are used by U.S. consumers every year, and it takes 12 million barrels of oil each year to produce them.
“Imagine the industrial pollution involved in this manufacturing process,” she said, adding that 133 government agencies throughout the United States have already banned single-use plastic bags.
Cathy Haft, who bought a second home in Southold “because this town seemed environmentally aware,” said fish stores must have used something else to wrap fish before there was plastic.
“It is just so reactionary to think we can’t solve this problem,” she said.
Group for the East End President Bob DeLuca said he remembers a time before plastic bags…and it wasn’t that long ago.
“It’s fascinating to me that, prior to 1980, there were virtually none of the bags we see today. Now 90 percent of bags are single use,” he said. “That’s 14 bags for every man woman and child on planet each year.”
He said in his research, he found that Stop & Shop in Riverhead goes through 70,000 single-use plastic bags each week, at a cost of $4,200.
He said that in Group for the East End’s work cleaning out Goldsmith Inlet, there’s a patch where they find small particles of plastic along the bottom of the inlet, in a layer two feet deep.
He said the public needs to be aware of the movement of plastics through the food chain, which affects everyone’s health.
“Disintegratable is not biodegradable,” he said. “The East End is distinct. Look at this with municipal leadership.”
North Fork Environmental Council President Bill Toedter said there’s enough petroleum byproducts in 14 plastic bags to run a car for one mile.
“They’re designed for a useful lifetime of 12 minutes before they rip and tear,” he said. “They just don’t go away, even after they’re ingested by animals. These free bags cost us far too much.”
Benja Schwartz of Cutchogue brought his reusable bag collection to the meeting, and showed it off to the crowd. He said he was particularly proud of his blue IGA bag from Mr. Reichert’s store [they’re sold there for 99 cents], which has an insulated liner.
“We don’t need them. They are not necessary,” he said of plastic bags. “I wish I could get a Southold Town bag because I’m very proud of the town that I live in.”
Marie Domenici of Mattituck suggested the town could give a tax credit to mom and pop stores that stop using plastic bags.
“No one wants to see mom and pops have to take money out of their pocket to support this environmental matter,” she said. “It’s really going to take a community to pull together to make this happen. I think we can work out something.”
Susan Switzer of Peconic was one of many people in the audience who wore a sticker on her shirt supporting the ban.
She reminded people in attendance that in 1969, when the movie “The Graduate” came out, the lead character was given a tip that plastics were the new hot thing.
Back then, she said, “there weren’t any” plastic bags.
“We just did different things,” she said. “They use these little string bags in Europe.”
Mr. Russell said he doubts there will be a public referendum on the issue and his administration plans to “continue getting a sense of where people stand” on banning plastic bags.
“We’re trying to do this in concert with the five East End towns,” he said. “We were trying to overcome the concerns of Charles [Reichert] and some others to work out a plan the five towns can honor and go forward with.”
“There’s been some pushback in Riverhead, but East Hampton is doing what we’re doing: Going out and getting a sense from the community.”