East Hampton Town Board Considers Plastic Bag Ban

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The East Hampton Town Board has received a good deal of outspoken support for a regionally proposed ban on single-use plastic bags, the lightweight ones customers carry away from many retail stores and supermarkets, and which often become roadside litter and an environmental hazard, particularly to marine life.

The board held its first public hearing on the issue at its meeting on Thursday, November 20, which drew representatives from Southampton Town and the food industry.

Southampton, Southold, and Shelter Island towns, as well as five Southampton Town villages, are joining East Hampton Town in putting forth the same legislation to the public that would ban the distribution of plastic bags at retail stores. East Hampton and Southampton villages already have such a ban in place.

A bag ban would require stores to stop using plastic bags and provide reusable bags or recyclable paper bags beginning five months after Earth Day, April 22, 2015, to give retailers enough time make the transition.

“These bags are environmentally very damaging,” said Dieter von Lehsten, the co-chair of the Sustainable Southampton Green Advisory Committee, referring to the use of single-use plastic bags. “They never quite vanish. They break down into tiny pebbles, which are then eaten by fish,” he told the Town Board.

Mr. von Lehsten added that 78 countries have already banned plastic bags, and that the East End must now do its part.

Frank Dalene, the chairman of East Hampton’s Energy Sustainability Advisory Committee, said that five billion to one trillion single-use plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year, and each one is only used for an average of 12 minutes. He added that billions of fossil fuels and gallons of water are used to create billions of plastic bags that are distributed each year.

Kathleen Kirkwood, a member of the East Hampton Recycling and Litter Committee, sporting a plastic bag tied around her neck like a scarf, said that many other municipalities are accepting a ban on single-use plastic bags, and East Hampton Town should follow suit. “Perhaps we need to look at it as a simple reality that everybody is doing it,” she said. “There are tens of thousands of cities that have successfully changed their cultural habits and said goodbye to single-use plastic bags.”

But Jay Peltz, a representative of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, a nonprofit trade association that represents 21,000 grocery stores, said that there have been no studies to support environmental damage from plastic bags and that a ban on them could actually be more harmful to the environment.

“It is commonly argued that plastic bags fill up landfills at an alarming rate. To our knowledge, no studies have been cited to corroborate that assertion,” Mr. Peltz said.

He pointed to a 2011 study showing that paper bags have a worse effect on the environment than plastic bags in terms of global warming and toxicity in the environment, and added that a shopper would have to reuse the same cotton tote from 94 up to 1,899 times before it had less environmental impact than a single-use plastic bag. He added that before a ban is put in place, environmental studies should be performed.

Jeremy Samuelson, the executive director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk, was critical of Mr. Peltz, saying that the “industry folks” give a different presentation every time they speak in opposition to a ban on plastic bags.

“First we’re told that the little old ladies would have to dip into their pension funds to afford the bags, that it would be an undue burden,” Mr. Samuelson said. “Then we’re told employees will have to be laid off from grocery stores because of undue cost. Then we’re told about how square footage in stores would be needed to store the new bags. I feel like I’m watching an old video of cigarette executives telling us the thing we know is bad really isn’t bad, and if we make the change for the better, we’re actually going to be worse off.”

Mr. Samuelson said that the industry representatives “cherry-pick” from sources, and that the town should move forward with the ban because “we now know better and are now obliged to do better.”

The Town Board agreed to leave the matter open until December 18, when there will be another public hearing.

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