Editorial: The Time is Now


As human civilization seems to careen toward self-destruction, it’s crucial that responsible people — those who are willing to face facts and deal with them — never give up. Resignation guarantees failure. Even small, incremental steps in the right direction guarantee hope and, just maybe, salvation.

Volunteers for the Sustainable Southampton Green Energy Committee are working with the town attorney’s office and Town Councilwoman Julie Lofstad to draft legislation that would ban the use of plastic straws and single-use polystyrene containers and packaging by food service establishments. The town board, discussing the initiative at a work session last week, appeared eager to enact it as soon as possible and put it into effect in time for the 2019 summer season.

In the context of a whole planet in trouble, it would be a step in the right direction but a tiny one with limited impact. Many food service establishments are in the incorporated villages of Sag Harbor, Southampton and Westhampton Beach, where the town’s ban would have no effect. But tiny steps, by setting an example, can change the world. When the town acts, the pressure will be on those villages to follow suit.

Plastics are an environmental threat but climate change is the overarching crisis that overshadows all human behavior. The world is warming faster than scientists initially forecast. Ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising and weather is more intense and destructive. As David Attenborough told a UN summit on climate change in Poland last week, the collapse of civilization and the natural world are on the horizon unless carbon emissions are reduced.

Our president, Donald Trump, gleefully disrupts the world economy with his tariffs but won’t do a thing to put the brakes on carbon emissions, when the truth is any gains made in our economy will be swiftly eroded by the impact of climate change. According to leading scientists, the time for small steps toward reducing carbon emissions is over — the threat our planet faces requires large-scale reform in how we think about energy and waste and our children and grandchildren need leaders on the federal and state level that will take this crisis seriously.

Meanwhile, there are more battles to wage. Town of Southampton residents, businesses and visitors are throwing out 20 million plastic straws a year and eight million Styrofoam cups and food containers, according to Tip Brolin of the Sustainability Committee’s plastics subcommittee, who presented the proposed polystyrene ban to the Town Board last week. That stuff, which is a carcinogen, does not degrade and much of it ends up in the oceans, where it disables and kills sea life. The minke whale found dead on Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett in September, Mr. Brolin told the Town Board, was found to have ingested 13 pounds of plastics and polystyrene.

At the same board work session, Councilman John Bouvier recalled diving during the 1970s, “in my previous life,” into the gyre of plastic waste that had formed by then in the Pacific between the U.S. and Japan; he went again in the 1990s and found the volume of trash in the vortex “starkly larger.” He said he favored the proposed ban on plastic straws and polystyrene containers and packaging, in part, because it would help address town’s solid waste “exceeding our capacity” to handle it.

The Surfrider Foundation has been a major force nationally raising awareness of the plastics blight. Its local volunteers attended last week’s work session in force to support the proposed ban. Join them next month, when the town is expected to begin holding hearings on the ban, in registering support for the proposal.

Now, more than ever, it is critical as individuals and as a society that we do our part — in every way we can — to protect our environment. The clock is ticking and we are almost out of time.