Over the last 50 years, Long Island’s Suffolk County has often been a leader in championing environmental causes and enacting legislation geared toward protecting the environment. Due to the unique geography and topography of Long Island, most specifically the underground aquifers that provide its sole source of drinking water and the wetlands and coastal waters that surround it, the need to be proactive in protecting the local water supply has, of necessity, become a matter of great concern to local environmentalists and lawmakers alike.
In 1971, the Suffolk County Legislature passed the first detergent ban in the United States. This unprecedented measure was prompted by findings that common synthetic detergents of the time contained surface agents such as alkyl benzene sulfonates and alcohol sulfates that were not degrading sufficiently to prevent their entry into the ground water table through the private septic systems common to the region. From there, these chemicals went on to contaminate local drinking water supplies. To put a stop to this untenable situation, all detergents containing the problematic surface agents (i.e., Tide, Wisk, All, Fab, Gain; if you can name it, it was banned) were prohibited by law from being sold in Suffolk County. Admittedly, the laundry soaps that filled Suffolk grocery shelves during the ban didn’t clean as well as detergents did, and many county residents surreptitiously traveled to stores in neighboring Nassau County to purchase the contraband laundry products and smuggle them back home. Still, in the years that followed, and at least partially as a result of Suffolk’s ban, the detergent industry implemented sweeping changes to the chemical composition of its products, and Suffolk eventually lifted its detergent ban in 1981.
Now, local officials on Long Island’s East End, or as you might better know the area, the Hamptons, have begun gathering support for a ban on plastic grocery bags in the five eastern Suffolk townships of East Hampton, Riverhead, Shelter Island, Southampton and Southold. The incorporated Villages of East Hampton and Southampton both enacted bans on these plastic bags in 2011. In Southampton Town, where an estimated 54,000 plastic bags are distributed daily by area stores, Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst believes that a plastic bag ban should ideally include all of Suffolk County, but must at least encompass the five East End towns to create a level playing field for grocers and residents. “I don’t think there’s any disputing the environmental value of moving in that direction,” Throne-Holst opined. While several other East End supervisors have gone on record as supporting the ban, Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman would prefer to see a five- or ten-cent East End surcharge on each plastic bag. This, he feels, would encourage recycling and repurposing of the bags, while retaining the convenience they offer and providing a funding source for litter cleanups and other environmental projects. “I’m guilty,” Schneiderman admitted. “I like to use those plastic bags [and] feel like I’m a responsible user of them.” I can certainly relate to that, and will keep you posted on any new ban-the-bag developments.