The Suffolk County Legislature today approved a sweeping package of environmental regulations directed at both businesses and the County itself that will ban polystyrene food service products, loose fill packaging and certain single use plastics now common within the restaurant industry. The proposals sponsored by Legislator Kara Hahn codify recommendations of the County’s Single-Use Plastic Reduction Task Force that intend to reduce unnecessary and excessive single-use garbage comprised of non-biodegradable chemical compounds from entering the waste stream. Hahn who is the Chairwoman of the Legislature’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee also leads the Task Force.
The four bills approved today will prohibit eateries from offering cups, containers, trays and other disposable items made of polystyrene, more commonly known as Styrofoam while also banning retail stores from selling these products, and polystyrene based packing materials to consumers; require food establishments to provide biodegradable straws and stirrers by request only while disallowing plastic ones; prohibit the County’s park concessionaires from distributing single-use cups, utensils or beverage straws made from non-biodegradable substances; and, will require products shipped to the County be packaged in material that is backyard compostable or biodegradable. The bills now go to County Executive Steve Bellone for his signature. Changes affecting food establishments and retailers will begin January 1, 2020 to allow businesses time to adjust inventory and rules covering the County’s procurement and contracting will apply to future contracts signed between the County and its concessionaires.
The bills make accommodations for people with disabilities whose medical conditions necessitate use of plastic straws while the polystyrene ban exempts items used to store uncooked eggs, raw meat, pork, fish, seafood and poultry. Additionally, the packaging rules won’t apply to goods regulated by the State or federal authorities, and if a vendor is unable to comply with the requirement, it will be required to notify the County in writing of the items being shipped in non-compliant packing and the reason why such packaging is necessary.
“The scale of the worldwide single-use plastics problem has become an ever increasing threat to our environment and everything that relies on it, including human health,” said Legislator Hahn. “The plastics crisis is more urgent than people realize, and today, we as a County have taken action to address the challenges posed by these dangerous pollutants. It is my hope that our action will spur other leaders to take a bold stand against expediency in favor of sustainability.”
The impacts of plastic and polystyrene waste on our environment are well documented. According to the not-for-profit Ocean Conservancy, “Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate our marine environments.” As a result, ingested plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtles species. While this has been devastating to marine life and ocean ecosystems, the impacts of plastic and, in particular, polystyrene are also a tangible threat to human health. The World Health Organization classifies styrene as a probable human carcinogen and the Environmental Protection Agency says the polystyrene manufacturing process is the fifth largest creator of hazardous waste in the United States. Furthermore, said Hahn, “in recent years, minute micro-plastics and fibers, measuring the width of a human hair or far less, have been found in an extraordinary range of products, such as honey and sugar, shellfish, bottled and tap water, beer, processed foods, table salt and soft drinks, which means that just like the sea turtles and birds, we humans are ingesting plastic virtually every day.”
This isn’t the County’s first attempt to improve our environment by banning these plastics and today’s action has been 30 years in the making. In 1988 Suffolk, which had already long been respected for its environmental stewardship, hoped to ban Styrofoam use by supermarkets and fast-food restaurants to protect air quality and groundwater from the “hazards and toxicity” associated with their disposal. That policy was reversed a year later due to a procedural issue. In 2013, Legislator Hahn had introduced a polystyrene ban that did not pass the legislature.
“It’s been 30 years since Suffolk first sounded the alarm on the dangers of single use plastic,” said Hahn. “During those three decades, not a single piece of plastic has biodegraded. We must reduce use now or suffer the consequences for generations to come.”
Last month, the Legislature took a first step toward reducing single use plastics when it approved a companion bill that requires the County to install water fountains designed to allow bottle filling at most of its facilities. That initiative, also sponsored by Legislator Hahn, will require duel use water fountains replace existing units in locations with 10 or more employees and at County parks as they become inoperable if not cost prohibitive.
The Single-Use Plastic Reduction Taskforce was created in 2018 by Legislator Hahn through Resolution 92-2018, which was co-sponsored by Legislator Tom Muratore. The Task Force was established to recommend strategy for reducing the use of plastic products and examine ways to increase recycling so plastics that are used won’t end up polluting our environment. As its first initiative, the Task Force launched “Strawless Suffolk,” an effort to convince restaurants to voluntarily stop using plastic straws. To date, almost 100 eateries have taken the pledge. Members of the task force include: Legislator Hahn; Southampton Town Council Woman Julie Lofstad; Beth Fiteni, Director of Green Inside and Out; Colleen Henn, Clean Water Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation; Kaitlin Willig, a Research Oceanographer with Stony Brook University; Christopher Sortino of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services; Dr. John Galitotos, Sr. Associate Vice President for Workforce Development, Community Partnerships, & STEM/CTE at Suffolk County Community College and Science Writer Erica Cirino.
"People are exposed to many chemicals in their daily environment. The Suffolk County Legislature has once again shown national leadership in helping to reduce people’s exposures to plastics chemicals, such as styrene and phthalates, in their food,” said Beth Fiteni, Director of Green Inside and Out. “Yes, it means transitioning to alternatives, but the legislature is doing the right thing in protecting people’s health and our environment."