Freeport is known as the “fishing capital of the world;” its shoreline is filled with canals that lead to salt marshes and the Middle Bay and then to the Atlantic Ocean. This watery paradise is filled with an abundance of wildlife that draws visitors and locals alike. Residents take pride in their coastal lifestyle, and tourists flock to the Nautical Mile every summer to enjoy local seafood and marine activities.
But below the surface of these waters lies a silent killer of native wildlife and a pollution problem. Each year thousands of plastic bags litter our waters. Plastic debris injures and kills fish, seabirds and marine mammals. According to Clean Water Action, marine plastic pollution has impacted at least 267 species worldwide, including 86 percent of all sea turtle species, 44 percent of all seabird species and 43 percent of all marine mammal species. The impacts include fatalities as a result of ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning and entanglement. Plastic bags never biodegrade, but they do breakdown. As they do so, any toxic additives they contain — including flame retardants, antimicrobials and plasticizers — will be released into the environment. Many of these chemicals may disrupt the endocrine system — the hormones and glands that affect every organ and cell in the bodies of humans and animals, said Clean Water Action.
To address this problem Nassau County Legislator Laura Curran would like to see a ban on single-use plastic bags that are distributed at check-out in grocery stores, and has approached the village of Freeport about writing legislation that would “make them a leading example for other Long Island communities,” Curran said. But Freeport’s Village Attorney Howard Colton said that while the village has reviewed the material, “we believe this is an issue that should be addressed by the Nassau County legislature on a county-wide level,” he said.
To date, no county in New York has banned the use of plastic bags, although the Suffolk County Legislature passed a bill on Sept. 9 that aims to significantly reduce single-use plastic and paper bag use. The BYOBag bill mandates that retailers charge a minimum fee of 5 cents on all plastic and paper bags at check-out counters in order to discourage single-use bag use. In addition to the fee, a companion education bill, which also passed on that day, will ensure that residents and businesses are prepared to switch to reusable bags when the fee goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, and will create a task force to evaluate the effectiveness of the fee in reducing single-use bag use.
Citizens Campaign for the Environment and the South Shore Audubon Society are both environmental organizations headquartered in Nassau County and support Curran and a ban on plastic bags in Freeport. CCE works with elected officials to advance environmental and public health programs, and the SSAS members work to educate locals on ways to maintain and protect the environment and its wildlife. Adrienne Esposito, executive director of CCE, and Betty Borowsky, president of the SSAS, both agree a ban would be an easy solution to reducing a considerable amount of pollution in Freeport.
Esposito and the CCE have worked with several other towns and lawmakers on Long Island to create similar legislation. Bans are successful in the coastal towns of Southampton and Easthampton, as well as the Village of Patchogue in Suffolk County, with no consumer backlash. As for Nassau County, Curran mentioned the City of Long Beach is looking into a ban as well.
“Whoever thought that a plastic bag would be deadly?” said Rob Weltner, president of Operation S.P.L.A.S.H.
Operation S.P.L.A.S.H. — Stop Polluting, Littering, and Save Harbors — is a non-profit organization based in Freeport that patrols the South Shore of Long Island, cleaning up trash from the coast and protecting the fragile ecosystem of the bays. Weltner said that last year alone, Operation S.P.L.A.S.H. collected 10,523 plastic bags from the South Shore of Nassau County.
Weltner explained that he has seen the devastating effects of plastic bag pollution on wildlife firsthand. Dolphins, whales, turtles, birds and other animals mistake the bags for food, essentially ingesting poison or suffocating to death. Birds, such as the formerly endangered osprey, have been documented using plastic bags as part of their nests. This proves dangerous for the chicks that can easily get tangled or die from eating pieces of the bags.
Plastic is also non-biodegradable. Dr. J Bret Bennington, professor of Geology, Environment and Sustainability at Hofstra University, explained how single-use plastic bags break down into microplastics, “and those tiny plastic particles get consumed by plankton and then they bio-accumulate up the food chain.” This means by nature of the food chain, humans are potentially ingesting plastic. Last year, President Obama signed a bipartisan bill banning the use of microbeads, another form of microplastics. It was discovered that microbeads were also being consumed by marine life, and according to a 2015 study published by Environmental Science and Technology, around 8 trillion microbeads were entering U.S. aquatic habitats daily.
As one of the larger waterfront communities in Nassau County, Freeport is especially sensitive to the amount of pollution that accumulates in its waterways and bays, explained Weltner.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, each person in the U.S. uses about 330 plastic bags annually. Based on this statistic and the 2010 U.S. census, about 14 million plastic bags are used in Freeport every year. This adds up to a total of about 85.7 tons of single-use plastic bags used in Freeport each year.
Plastic also has an extremely low recycling rate; in 2013 the EPA estimated only 9 percent of all plastics were recycled. Plastic bags are not recyclable at the local sanitation department in the Town of Hempstead and have to be deposited in recycling bins at local grocery stores. When plastic bags get into the town’s recycling stream they clog up the equipment, which costs taxpayers money to clear them out. Additionally, plastic bags get drawn into sewage treatment plants and storm water runoff pipes, which causes local flooding and contamination of the groundwater.
Freeport resident Katelyn Simone, who lives on the waterfront, has seen the plastic pollution first hand. “There is a decent amount of litter in the canal, mostly plastic bottles and bags,” Simone said. “Litter becomes even more of an issue when the tide comes up and other people’s garbage ends up on our lawns. But no one is going to be happy about buying reusable bags,” Simone said about a potential ban.
It has been estimated that both locals and retail stores would actually be saving money with a plastic bag ban, Esposito said. Retail stores would not have to spend money purchasing single-use plastic bags at about 2 cents per bag, and residents would save tax dollars by not having to clean out recycling centers or sewage systems.
Weltner said that retailers “make it sound like the whole economy is going to crumble,” when lawmakers consider these kinds of bans. But he knows that most people understand the impacts to the water, and “can come up with other ways to clean up their dog’s waste,” he said. Esposito agreed. “A ban would be great for Freeport … the home values and the entire economic engine of the area is attributable to the bays, so all the residents, villages and businesses should work together to protect them,” Esposito said.
“We all know they are harmful, and we’re not asking Freeport to be the first ones to do this,” Esposito continued, “we just don’t want them to be the last.”
Laura Schofer contributed to this story