Southampton Adopts Ban on Plastic Straws and Polystyrene

Southampton Town Hall

The Southampton Town Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to bar the use of plastic straws and stirrers and polystyrene packaging at fast food and takeout establishments including restaurants, effective May 8. The ban does not affect retail sales of those products at stores and supermarkets.

The plastic straw and polystyrene container ban, proposed last fall by the Town Board’s Sustainable Southampton Green Advisory Committee and its plastics subcommittee, sponsored by Councilwoman Julie Lofstad and championed by the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, drew no public opposition during public hearings this winter in Hamptons Bay and at Town Hall in Southampton.

The law is intended to reduce the threat to marine life posed by floating plastics; reduce litter on local beaches; and save money by cutting the volume of the town’s solid waste stream, Joseph Glorioso, a member of the town’s Solid Waste Management Advisory Committee and the Sustainability Committee, explained before the Town Board voted on February 13.

“This may be a small step but it’s a very important step,” said Ms. Lofstad just before the vote. “Our environment is everything to us and anything we can do that’s not going to have harmful impacts on our businesses and residents is a no-brainer for me.”

The board’s only Republican member, Christine Scalera — who is considering a run for supervisor against incumbent Democrat Jay Schneiderman — commented before the vote, “It’s not a secret that I haven’t supported bans in the past” because they can be hard on businesses. She said she had received “a barrage” of opposition from local businesses to the town’s plastic bag ban before it was enacted in 2014 and voted against it. But this time, she noted, the plastics subcommittee conducted a survey of local businesses and found 95 percent supporting the ban. It appears “people are coming on board” and “this a win-win,” Ms. Scalera said.

Councilman John Bouvier thanked the Surfrider Foundation “for being there all the time.” Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni said that, just as it did with the town’s plastic bag ban, he hoped the county and state would follow the town’s lead on plastic straws and polystyrene packages.

Supervisor Schneiderman said, “We do live in a really sensitive environment. We have a lot of marine live. We have a lot of other wildlife. Styrofoam is problematic, there’s no question about it. It does … last a very long time. For plastic straws, there are alternatives.

“All you have to do is see the images of the marine life that is impacted and of course you want to change things. It’s remarkable we’ve had no one opposed to this,” he added, taking it as a sign people are being more environmentally responsible.

He thanked the Surfrider representatives on hand and the Sustainability Committee and praised Councilwoman Lofstad for taking on the issue “before she knew it wasn’t going to be controversial,” and who got out there and said, ‘I need to do this.’” Noting her husband is a commercial fishermen, he said she understood first-hand the impact of plastic straws and polystyrene of marine life.

Under the law, restaurants will be permitted to keep a small number of plastic straws on hand for those with physical disabilities who require plastic straws.

Last November, when the proposed law was first introduced, Tip Brolin of Water Mill, a member of the plastics reduction subcommittee, told the board that 30 percent of the town’s solid waste is from polystyrene products, with homes and businesses in Southampton Town disposing of about 20 million straws and 8 million polystyrene cups a year — not to mention other polystyrene materials such as so-called peanuts and other packaging.

Cutting its volume would reduce disposal costs, increase recycling revenues, and remove the health threat posed by polystyrene, a carcinogen, lingering in the environment, Mr. Brolin said.

The material breaks down into tiny pieces but other than that “it does not degrade,” he said. “It stays in the landfills and the ocean to eventually be eaten by sea life.” Some 13 pounds of plastic was found in the digestive system of a dead whale that beached at Indian Wells in Amagansett in September, he said.

“The only way to avoid the problem in the future is not to have it in the first place,” Mr. Brolin argued then.

Retaining Wall Concerns

Among other topics at a busy meeting on Tuesday, the Town Board heard about the prospect of proliferating and increasingly high retaining walls in waterfront communities as sea level rises.

Complaining about the aesthetic impacts and flooding caused by runoff deflected by retaining walls, and attorney and several residents of the Turtle Cove and Cold spring Pond areas of North Sea raised the issue as they spoke against a proposed law — drafted by the town attorney’s office and favored by the building inspector — that would cede oversight of septic system retaining walls to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.

“Why would the Town of Southampton relinquish any responsibility it has” to regulate retaining walls, asked the president of the Cold Spring Point Association.

Assistant Town Attorney Katie Garvin told the board the proposal would codify existing practice in the building department, which for decades has exempted retaining walls built to contain septic systems from having to comply with zoning setback and height standards if the county health department as determined the height and location of the walls are structurally necessary.

“We’re ceding our zoning powers explained Ms. Garvin, after noting the town is facing two Article 78 lawsuits over retaining walls were approved by the county. Both cases are also before the Board of Zoning Appeals seeking to revoke the building permits that were issued by the town for the structures.

Chief Building Inspector Mike Benincasa explained that it would be a hardship to require people building septic systems in waterfront areas, where ground water levels may be high, to engineer a system with walls that meet height and setback requirements and then learn from the county that it requires something different. He suggested the proposed law limit retaining walls to “the minimum height necessary” and require some sort of local review for walls over three feet.

“This all started when I/A came in, said attorney Mike Walsh, referring to “innovative-alternative” nitrogen-reducing septic systems. Mr. Walsh filed the two lawsuits pending against the town.