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City passes law to curb plastic-bag pollution

Five-cent fee on carryout bags is first in Nassau County

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“Can you hear me OK?” City Manager Jack Schnirman bellowed into a megaphone, as he addressed the dozens of reusable bag advocates surrounding him in Kennedy Plaza on Tuesday night before the City Council passed legislation to reduce plastic bag use in Long Beach. “We need all of Nassau County to hear how we’re setting the tone.”

Long Beach businesses are now required to charge at least 5 cents for each carryout bag that shoppers use, after the council voted unanimously to pass an ordinance aimed at reducing the negative environmental and economic impacts associated with single-use plastic and paper bags. Local stores will keep the money garnered from the fee, which will be implemented after a seven-month public education effort, officials said.

The vote comes after months of support from advocacy groups and residents who urged the city to address the problem of plastic bag pollution, which they say plagues Long Beach’s streets, trees, ocean and bay. At the rally, similar to one held in July, supporters of the measure once again gathered outside City Hall before the meeting to show their support for the legislation.

Members of the All Our Energy’s Bring Your Own Bag campaign, Stewards of the Sea and the Surfrider Foundation — who have said the city uses about 11 million plastic bags per year — spoke about the importance of the measure, and even joined in singing “Bye Bye Plastic Bag” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ hit, “Barbara Ann” before filing into City Hall.

Scott Bochner, a local environmentalist who sits on Long Beach’s Environmental Advisory Board, told the crowd before the meeting that 10,000 bags have been removed from Reynolds Channel this year.

“We continue to clean these bags out of the Western Bays every single day,” Bochner said at the rally. “We will continue to lead Nassau County and the rest of the planet, and we are joining the rest of the planet to get rid of these single-use plastic bags. Long Beach is ready to bring their own bag when they shop.”

The local movement began last year, when the Environmental Advisory Board recommended educating the public on plastic-bag pollution, which included organizing free screenings of the documentary film “Bag It” around Long Beach. The city finished drafting the ordinance last month, when Patchogue began its ban on single-use plastic and non-recyclable paper shopping bags. The Suffolk County Legislature also approved a measure last month to impose a 5 cent fee for single-use plastic bags, with the hope of seeing a 75 percent reduction in their number within three years.

No municipality in Nassau County, however, had passed plastic bag legislation of this kind until Tuesday night.

“Long Beach needs to be the leader,” City Council Vice President Anthony Eramo, a Democrat running for State Assembly, said at the rally. “We are on the front lines and we know that. We have the bay, we have the ocean, we are the on the front lines of climate change, and we can fight for our children and everybody who is here.”

The fee — designed to encourage residents to switch to using reusable bags — will also be collected for each bag used at city-run facilities, city-sponsored events and any other event held in Long Beach. Businesses who violate the ordinance are subject to fines, which increase with each offense.

Bags without handles that are used to carry produce, meats, loose baked goods, dry cleaning, newspaper delivery bags, liquor store sales, flowers or other non-prepackaged food items, or those provided by a doctor, pharmacist or veterinarian to carry prescription drugs, will not be subject to a fee. Bags will also be free for customers using the New York State Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or New York State Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

During the public hearing before the measure was passed, State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, a Democrat from East Setauket and chairman of the Assembly’s Committee for Environmental Conservation, praised the council for what he called its model legislation, which he said is the best that he has seen in dealing with the solid-waste issue. He added that, with permission, he would like to use the ordinance as a basis for statewide legislation.

West End Neighbors President John Bendo said that he supports the measure, but urged the city to consider amending the ordinance to include a maximum fee that businesses can charge, a requirement for the stores to sell reusable bags as well, and for the city to retain the money collected. Schnirman said the city had looked into those issues, adding that any problems would be addressed during the public education effort.

Former Councilwoman Fran Adelson said more than 30 businesses have already signed up to purchase reusable bags for their customers, and that the Chamber of Commerce will give out a certain number to residents. Eramo’s daughter, Fiona, who is president of Long Beach High School’s sophomore class, said students are also creating reusable shopping bags.

“This has been an incredible experience in realizing what can happen if everybody looks out for the best interest of the community, takes that into full consideration and turns it into action,” said George Povall, of All our Energy, who presented the council with 3,137 signatures supporting the city’s legislation. “This is going to be a great change for Long Beach, and it’s going to make Long Beach stand out as a community that cares about its natural resources.”