Updated on February 5, 2018
Updated on February 5, 2018
By Erica Cirino, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad” Fellow
It was a hot day in late December 2017, and I was sitting in the shade of a woven banana-leaf awning at a sleepy seaside canteen on an island in the remote South Pacific. I had just completed a 23-day sailing expedition from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia, with Danish nonprofit Plastic Change, and I wanted to tell my friends and family we had made it safely to our destination. So I pulled out my iPhone and tried to catch up with the outside world.
I noticed my mother had texted me at least a dozen times, despite my telling her I’d be off grid for a few weeks. I rolled my eyes until something she wrote caught my eye: “Check this out!!” she had texted. Her message was apparently in reference to a photo that was having trouble downloading on the canteen’s snail-slow WiFi connection. After 15 long minutes it finally popped up on my phone’s screen.
It was a photo of a handwritten sign taped up in her local supermarket: “Starting January 1, shops in Suffolk County may no longer distribute paper or plastic bags. You may purchase paper or plastic bags at five cents each. To avoid this fee, bring your own bag.”
I FaceTimed my mother immediately—or as immediately as the slow Internet connection would allow. Had Suffolk County finally implemented a plastic bag tax after a decades-long battle in the courts some time during the 23 days I was off-grid?
Indeed it had. This was monumental.
“I bet you’re happy to hear the news,” my mom told me.
I was happy—I am happy. It’s a really, really great thing that Long Island is getting serious about plastic. Plastic bags are pervasive in the natural environment on the island, where they easily blow into coastal habitats and forestland, posing a threat to wildlife and the ecosystems they depend upon to survive. Suffolk County is home to about 1.5 million people, and most of those people use plastic bags. The fee is meant to deter plastic bag use by encouraging people to instead bring reusable bags to the store, cutting down on plastic use.
Just three weeks into the new law going into effect, Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer said it had started to show “dramatic results.” In a Facebook video, Spencer said two prominent grocery stores in Suffolk County reported 50 and 80 percent decreases in plastic bag use.
When people do buy bags, the fee goes to grocery stores. Some of those stores keep the money while others are choosing to donate the fee to charitable causes. For example, IGA supermarkets in Suffolk County have chosen to donate their bag fee money to a major hospital in the county.
I’ve been back in New York for nearly a month and have been closely watching and talking to other shoppers at the checkout counters when I get my weekly groceries. Generally, people say they are not bothered by the fee. They’re starting to remember to leave a few reusable bags in their cars more of the time. They’re buying fewer things when they don’t have enough reusable bags with them. They’re carrying heaps of stuff in their arms—un-bagged—when they forget their reusable bags at home. The fee seems to be working in its attempt to change consumer behavior, and in turn reducing Long Island’s reliance on plastic bags.
Of course Suffolk County is not the first place in the world to tax plastic bags. Denmark—where my sailing friends are from—passed the world’s first plastic bag tax in 1994. I’ve been to Denmark many times, and have noticed that barely anyone buys a plastic bag at the store. When a person does buy a plastic bag, they use it over and over and over again, because it’s relatively expensively taxed (between 25 and 50 cents, in US dollars) and made of thicker, higher quality plastic than the flimsy disposable bags you find in most shops—including the ones we have in Suffolk County currently.
Years ago and with great success, Long Island, New York’s Hamptons townships prohibited thin single-use grocery bags and implemented a fee for purchasing heavier plastic bags. Implementing a tax on all of Suffolk County is a step in the right direction. The rules could be stronger: the tax could be higher, or the county could ban bags outright. But for now, the small fee is already helping reduce bag use—I’ve seen a drastic change with my own eyes.
In some ways it feels like I’ve come back to a new island.