By Jano Tantongco
The bill regulating single-use plastic bags has passed through the Suffolk Legislature. Starting Jan. 1, 2018, customers will pay 5-cents per plastic or paper bag used at retail stores, including supermarkets.
The new law, passed Sept. 7, will be enforced by the county’s department of health services. Violations are subject to a civil fine of $500. The 5 cents would go directly to the retailer.
The law would apply to all retail stores, with the exception of bags used for restaurants, dry cleaners, pharmacies and bags for poultry or produce. Suffolk Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) added that exemptions are for plastic bags that have a specific utility.
The bill was initially proposed by Suffolk Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) in March. It was conceived as an outright ban of plastic bags, but negotiations among the business community, civic groups and environmental organizations prompted him to modify the bill.
“Asking them for an outright ban, the concern was that it would have an impact not just on employers, but those that are working in the stores,” Spencer said. “In the long run, it’s something that we can do as Long Islanders to band together that can make a substantial difference.”
Spencer added that historically, Long Island’s number one industry was farming. In the modern day, he added, it has shifted to tourism.
“When we have bags littering our coastlines and our trees and our preserves, it takes away from our number one commodity,” he said.
Legislator Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) voted against the measure, comparing the fee to the deposit used for bottles and cans. He argued that those deposits haven’t effectively curbed the use of bottles and cans, and that he doesn’t expect a different result from this new law.
“It was watered down to the point where it may be totally ineffective,” Trotta said, but added that he wouldn’t mind if the money went to environmental causes.
Trotta, who has previously criticized the county’s alarm registration fee and its red light camera program as unfair taxation, also called this new law a “tax.”
Spencer responded in an interview, emphasizing that, “as a county legislature, we’re not allowed to tax.”
“I will submit to you this: The bags are not free. We were paying for them anyway. We’ve just pulled the hidden cost and we put it right out there on the table,” he said. By exposing it, I’m giving people a chance to opt out. Now when you go to the register, you have a choice. It creates awareness.”