On January 1, 2018, a new Suffolk County Law took effect that establishes a 5-cent fee on disposable bags used at stores in Suffolk County. The fee’s purpose is to provide a financial incentive to motivate customers to move away from single-use paper and plastic bags and towards sturdy multi-use bags. These durable bags, which are made from a variety of materials such as cloth, heavy plastic, canvas and netting, can be used hundreds of times before wearing out. The reduction of single-use bags will not only save energy and reduce pressure on landfills and incinerators, it will also significantly reduce adverse impacts to wildlife and help clean up waterways, roadsides and parklands.
Many other countries, states, and local municipalities have enacted identical or similar bans over the past decade. Those that have been in place for several years have met or exceed their goals of reducing plastic bag use and curbing the proliferation of plastic in the natural environment. On Long Island, the City of Long Beach and the Villages of Patchogue and Southampton have recently enacted measures designed to curtail single-use bags.
Seatuck Environmenal Association’s strong support for the laws stems from an awareness of the pernicious impact that plastics have on the natural world, and the need to alter the throwaway mindset that pervades our collective lifestyles. Plastic bags are, of course, only part of the problem. But they symbolize a society that, in too many ways, is simply unsustainable over the long-term and which does not reflect an understanding of the fragility of the earth’s natural systems on which we rely. The proliferation of plastic bags in the environment is one piece of the problem that we can solve.
The adverse effects of intact plastic bags to wildlife are well documented. We have all seen images of sea turtles and marine mammals that have ingested them (thinking they’re sea jellies), or fish and birds that have become entangled with plastic bags, often with fatal results. Arguably even more problematic, however, is the effect from the countless small plastic pieces that are produced as plastic bags break apart in the open environment.
Polyethylene, from which plastic bags are made, does not biodegrade in the natural environment. Bacteria and other microbes don’t consume plastic or break it down into its component parts. Instead, the sun breaks down polyethylene through a process called photodegradation. In this process, ultraviolet light causes the long polymer strands in polyethylene to become brittle and crack, breaking plastic bags down into smaller and smaller pieces. It doesn’t eliminate plastic; rather, it degrades it down into increasingly small pieces that “disappear” into the natural environment. These microplastics persist everywhere and can have a devastating impact on wildlife.
As they are ingested by wildlife they negatively affect physiology and health. Chemicals added to plastic during manufacturing or absorbed from the surrounding environment can be transferred to wildlife after ingestion and cause a host of additional problems. At the smallest size, these microplastics are capable of crossing cell membranes and causing direct tissue damage.
Scientists fear that the buildup of microplastics in marine and terrestrial environments—and in the stomachs and bodily tissues of wildlife—portends a bleak future in which plastic particles infiltrating every step of the food chain. A plastic bag might disappear in 10 to 100 years if exposed to the sun, but its damaging environmental legacy may last forever.
We urge Suffolk County residents to “go green” in 2018 by embracing this new law and the important goals it seeks to promote. It may take some effort at first to break the plastic bag habit, but over time using reusable bags will become second nature – you’ll reflexively reach for them every time you head to the store. To get started, build up your reusable bag collection so they’re handy when you need them. Hang some by the front door. Keep a few in your car. Give bags out as gifts! Whatever it takes to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags and help turn the tide on plastics! Over time, our aquatic and terrestrial habitats will be safer for wildlife and our parks and roadsides will be cleaner!