By Joe Kuhn
The Rockland County Legislature has just passed a new law that will place a county-wide ban on single-use plastic shopping bags. The Rockland County Plastic Carryout Bag Waste Reduction Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by legislators Laurie Santulli and Nancy Low-Hogan, is “a first step” toward addressing climate change at the local level. The bill aims to improve the health of Rockland’s ecosystem and residents and was met with widespread support during a public forum last Tuesday.
“I am very proud of the Rockland Legislatures Decision tonight,” said Jordan Dale, Vice president of 350NJ Rockland. “Their decision will be good for the planet, good for our children and our grandchildren.”
350.org, named after the parts per million of carbon that should be present in a heathy atmosphere, was one of the many environmental advocacy groups that came out to support the bill. Representatives from the Sierra Club and Keep Rockland Beautiful were also on hand to warn of the dangers of climate change and urge passage of a law that could help address the “crisis.”
“The time for baby steps is over,” said one volunteer who warned the community that plastic shopping bags, which are created from petroleum and take hundreds of years to fully degrade, are a leading contributor to both climate change and pollution in general.
Other advocates of the bill brought up the public health concerns presented by the widespread use of plastic. “I’m worried about what happens to these plastic bags as they break down,” said Dr. Eric Larsen, a local emergency physician who told the legislature that the level of plastic in our ecosystem may be a contributing factor to rising rates of cancer. “When [plastic shopping bags] break down, they become a part of our soil, our water and even the food we eat,” he warned. Representatives from the governments of Piermont, which has already enacted such a ban, and Nyack echoed the concerns voiced by environmental advocates. They told the legislature that their residents have been overwhelmingly in favor of life without plastic shopping bags.
Not everyone shared that enthusiasm. Moses Mendlowitz, the owner of two grocery stores in the county, was “disappointed” in the legislature’s decision. “The population of Rockland County was not represented,” said Mendlowitz, who protested that “average consumers are not even aware the bill is being passed, they’re in for a big shock.” He argued that the proposal would “cause tremendous difficulty” to his customers by adding “unnecessary” expense to their grocery bill. He also argued that reusable bags could present a sanitation issue as cloth bags that are repeatedly filled with raw meat and dairy products could become breeding grounds for bacteria.
Legislator Low-Hogan addressed those concerns by pointing out that her bill did not ban “deli” plastic bags used to wrap meat and fresh produce, and that most reusable bags are in fact machine washable. She also stated that disposable paper bags, which are not banned by the bill, should still be available for customers.
Legislator Itamar Yeger was concerned that the bill would negatively impact low-income families that could not afford to buy reusable bags. He asked that the vote be postponed until the referral was redrafted in order to include a proviso that would grant free bags to families that require public assistance. Legislator Charles J. Falciglia spoke for many of his colleagues when he opined that the bill could be amended afterwards if such a problem occurred and that forward momentum on the issue was paramount.