On January 1, 2018, a local law to reduce the use of carryout bags in retail stores took effect in Suffolk County. Passed in late 2017, the law aims to address the detrimental impact that paper and non-biodegradable plastic bags have on the environment by charging a $0.05 fee for every bag. The reliance on fossil fuels to produce plastic bags, the contamination of water and soil their breakdown causes, and the impact on wildlife (choking on and entanglement in) were a few of the factors that informed the Suffolk County Legislature’s decision to implement this law.
Data from the Environmental Protection Agency show that 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide every year. Bags that are not recycled, which make up the majority, wash up on our nation’s shores or break down into “toxic petro-polymers,” that contaminate surrounding soil and water. Additionally, the production of paper bags requires substantial amounts of water, energy, and chemicals and can emit hazardous substances into the air and water.
Before and after the law took effect, numerous organizations, volunteers, and school groups conducted surveys on bag usage by sitting outside grocery stores across Suffolk County and tallying the number of people and types of bags used. Here’s what they found:
In November and December of 2017, a total of 11,395 shoppers were surveyed. The results, provided by the Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE) are as follows: 20.23 percent had no bag(s); 2.22 percent used a combination (reusable and plastic/paper); 5.27 percent had reusable bag(s); 1.33 percent used paper; and 70.96 percent – the majority – used plastic.
In April 2018, another survey was taken at 14 grocery stores, but this time only 6,162 shoppers were surveyed. The results are as follows: 21.29 percent had no bag(s); 4.90 percent used a combination (reusable and plastic/paper); 43.09 percent had reusable bag(s); 0.54 percent used paper; and 30.19 percent used plastic.
The results from these crude surveys were first presented as an interim assessment to the Suffolk County Legislature Health Committee in April by CCE. The surveys showed that there was a significant drop in plastic bag usage by over 40 percent and a nearly equal increase in reusable bag use. In short, these results suggest that the new carryout bag law is achieving its primary aim of reducing plastic bag usage.
Suffolk County is joining many other cities and states (nationally and internationally) that have already enacted laws that charge fees for using bags or ban them altogether.
“I think that the numbers speak for themselves, but we kind of knew from other areas that the 5 cent fee does have an impact on consumer behavior,” said Jordan Christensen, the Hudson Valley Program Coordinator at CCE. “It is shocking how much the nickel really matters. People really didn’t want to pay the nickel, people really didn’t want the store getting the nickel and were willing to change behavior over a small amount of money.”
“I think it’s really encouraging, it not only just worked as a penalty but primarily worked as an educational tool where people had to stop and think, ‘This isn’t a free item, is it worth the cost not just economically but environmentally as well?'” explained Christensen.
CCE is planning another survey for this November and December – marking a year since the first survey was taken. They are also looking to expand to convenience stores and pharmacies to get a more complete picture of bag usage in the county.
“We need more data to decide where to move next, but so far we are very happy that it seems to be working,” said Christensen.
Rebecca Grella, Ph.D., was involved in the survey and its eventual presentation to the Suffolk County Legislature Health Committee in April. Grella chairs the education committee that works on implementation, education, and data collection aspects of the law. Christensen added that Grella played a key role in getting many school groups and students to participate, as she is a research scientist and teacher at Brentwood School District.
“[Grella] worked with CCE and students and was really instrumental in getting the school groups in those initial surveys on board.”
CCE was established in 1985 by a group of concerned citizens with a mission to advance stronger environmental policy through public involvement, lobbying, and education.
For more information, please visit www.citizenscampaign.org. For a reading of the law, please visit www.suffolkcountyny.gov.