When it comes to the waste generated by single-use plastics and polystyrene, the plastics crisis is more urgent than people realize, and Suffolk must clean-up its act according to members of the county’s Single-Use Plastic Reduction Task Force who unveiled four proposals intended to achieve that goal. Led by Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn who serves as chairperson of the task force, the group outlined regulations directed at both businesses and the County itself that ban the use of polystyrene food service products and sale of polystyrene packaging; require restaurants to provide biodegradable straws and stirrers by request only while disallowing plastic ones; prohibit County concessionaires from distributing single-use cups, utensils or beverage straws made from non-biodegradable substances and require the County to install water fountains designed to allow bottle filling at most of its facilities.
If fully adopted by the Legislature, implementation of these policy changes would be staggered with the polystyrene ban taking effect approximately three months after its approval; the straws and stirrers policy beginning on January 1, 2020; the County concessionaire prohibition on single use plastic being included in all future license agreements; and existing water fountains being replaced as they age.
“Today we announce policies that will come to define our County’s environmental legacy for generations to come,” said Legislator Hahn. “The vast and growing scale of the worldwide plastics problem has become a growing threat to human health. We as a County have worked, in some cases decades, to address the challenges posed by these dangerous pollutants. Now, with the backing of science and evolving public awareness, support for policies limiting and banning substances that threaten human health and our environment has reached a turning point. It’s time to take a stand against this growing threat.”
Specifically being proposed is a ban of polystyrene food service products including plates, cups, containers and trays and loose fill packaging; a disallowance of providing single use, non-biodegradable plastic straws and stirrers with environmental friendly alternatives only allowed upon customer request; replacing existing water fountains with ones designed to allow bottle filling at County facilities that have ten or more employees and parks that include water dispensers; and including a requirement that concessionaire license agreements awarded by the County after the bill’s passage include a restriction on the use of plastic and non-biodegradable cups, utensils and beverage straws.
The bills make accommodations for people with disabilities whose medical conditions necessitate use of plastic straws. Additionally, the polystyrene ban exempts items used to store uncooked eggs, raw meat, pork, fish, seafood and poultry.
The impacts of plastic and polystyrene waste on our environment are well documented. According to the not-for-profit Ocean Conservancy, “Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate our marine environments.” As a result, ingested plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtles species. While this has been devastating to marine life and ocean ecosystems, the impacts of plastic and, in particular, polystyrene are also a tangible threat to human health. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has classified styrene as a potential human carcinogen and the Environmental Protection Agency says the polystyrene manufacturing process is the fifth largest creator of hazardous waste in the United States. Furthermore, said Hahn, “in recent years, minute micro-plastics and fibers, measuring the width of a human hair or far less, have been found in an extraordinary range of products, such as honey and sugar, shellfish, bottled and tap water, beer, processed foods, table salt and soft drinks, which means that just like the sea turtles and birds, we humans are ingesting plastic virtually every day.”
This won’t be the County’s first attempt to improve our environment by banning these plastics. In 1988 Suffolk, which had already long been respected for its environmental stewardship, hoped to ban Styrofoam use by supermarkets and fast-food restaurants to protect air quality and groundwater from the “hazards and toxicity” associated with their disposal. Unfortunately, that policy was reversed a year later due to a procedural issue. In 2013, Legislator Hahn had introduced a polystyrene ban that did not pass the legislature.
“It’s been 30 years since Suffolk first sounded the alarm on the dangers of single use plastic,” said Hahn. “During those three decades, not a single piece of plastic has biodegraded. We must reduce use now or suffer the consequences for generations to come.”
Dr. Rebecca Grella, a research scientist and educator in the Brentwood Union Free School District agreed, “My students and I have found a significant amount of plastic in the salt marshes we study. We have plastic from the 1990’s as evidence from the bottle caps we are finding. There is a tremendous amount of plastic in these marshes and we need a solution.”
Later this afternoon, each of the initiatives will be assigned to a committee with the polystyrene ban and the by-request-only requirement, which are local laws, expected to be taken up by the Health Committee; the concessionaire bill to be considered by the Parks and Recreation Committee and finally, the water dispenser proposal to be put before the Public Works Committee. The earliest the proposals can be approved by the Legislature will be March 5th for the non-local laws and March 26th for others that require a public hearing.
According to Beth Fiteni, Director of Green Inside and Out, a Long Island based nonprofit organization that promotes living environmentally consciously, "Each one of us makes a difference with our daily actions. While no one step is the whole solution to preventing plastic pollution, these proactive steps being considered by the Suffolk County legislature on polystyrene, plastic straws, and refilling water bottles show strong leadership towards reducing waste and protecting our oceans, rivers and lakes.”
A sentiment shared by Colleen Henn, Clean Water Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, “Suffolk County Legislators are stepping up to protect the environment and human health by introducing bills that reduce plastics pollution. The three laws proposed by Legislator Hahn and the Single Use Plastics Reduction Task Force smartly focus on preventing plastics from being introduced to the environment in the first place. By providing plastic straws by request only, prohibiting polystyrene foam, and providing water bottle re-fill stations at county buildings, parks, and establishments, the County is using an upstream approach to get ourselves out of this plastic mess we have created. If these laws pass, it will be a hat-trick for the health of our oceans and Surfrider Foundation's members will definitely be celebrating!”
“How do you conquer a world-wide crisis?” asked Legislator Hahn. “One local County at a time if necessary. An island, like Long Island, surrounded by the ocean and the Sound with water so intricately tided to our life and our identity, should be at the forefront of this issue, not wait to be last in line.”
“The negative impacts to our environment and public health, due to plastic pollution, is a problem that will continue to worsen with time. Taking action now is imperative if we are going to effectively reverse the growing crisis. I commend Legislator Hahn for her work on this issue,” concluded Legislator William R. Spencer.
The Single-Use Plastic Reduction Taskforce was created in 2018 by Legislator Hahn through Resolution 92-2018, which was co-sponsored by Legislator Tom Muratore. The Task Force was established to recommend strategy for reducing the use of plastic products and examine ways to increase recycling so plastics that are used won’t end up polluting our environment. As its first initiative, the Task Force launched “Strawless Suffolk,” an effort to convince restaurants to voluntarily stop using plastic straws. To date, almost 100 eateries have taken the pledge. Members of the task force include: Legislator Hahn; Southampton Town Council Woman Julie Lofstad; Kaitlin Willig, a Research Oceanographer with Stony Brook University; Christopher Sortino of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services; Dr. John Galitotos, Sr. Associate Vice President for Workforce Development, Community Partnerships, & STEM/CTE at Suffolk County Community College; Science Writer Erica Cirino; and Beth Fiteni and Colleen Henn.