Southampton Town Prepares Ban on Plastic Straws, Polystyrene Containers

Jenna Schwerzmann clutches dozens of straws she picked up during a beach cleanup on Earth Day last year that was conducted by the Group for the East End and the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. Rachel Bosworth photo

As the world hears horror stories about gigantic gyres of plastic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and sea life dying because of plastics ingestion or entrapment, the Southampton Town Board appears to be getting ready to join about 80 other municipalities across the country that have banned plastic straws and polystyrene cups and containers from being used by food service establishments.

Town Board members expressed support for the idea after Tip Brolin of Water Mill, a member of the plastics reduction subcommittee of the Town Board’s Sustainable Southampton Green Advisory Committee, made a presentation on the proposal at the Town Board’s November 29 work session.

Also at the work session, Parks Department director Kristin Doulos and representatives from the New York Power Authority reported that all the town’s streetlights from Eastport to Sagaponack — some 2,484 of them — have been converted from sodium vapor to far more energy efficient and long-lasting LED lighting through NYPA’s Smart Cities streetlighting program.

NYPA financed the project, which was expected to cost up to $1.9 million. The town will pay it back over eight years. Its cash flow for streetlighting expenses is expected to be positive because of a 50-percent savings in energy costs.

The proposal for a plastic straw and polystyrene ban, based on laws adopted in the villages of East Hampton and Patchogue, would prohibit any “food service establishment, mobile food commissary or store” from possessing, selling, or offering for use single-service articles such as cups or clamshell containers; loose-fill packaging such as “peanuts”; and coolers made of expanded polystyrene, often called Styrofoam.

The ban also would apply to plastic straws and require businesses not offer straws of any kind except on request. Businesses could keep a supply of no more than 20 plastic straws on hand for disabled people who need them.

The law would not affect the sale of plastic straws or polystyrene cups at retail stores such as supermarkets, Supervisor Jay Schneiderman told a member of the audience at the work session, and there would be exceptions to the polystyrene ban for certain pre-packaged foods such a raw meat.

The law would not affect businesses in the town’s incorporated villages, which set their own regulations. Like both the towns of East Hampton and Southampton, Sag Harbor has a ban on single-use plastic bags but has not legislated against plastic straws or polystyrene containers and packaging.

Mr. Brolin told the board that 30 percent of the town’s solid waste is from Styrofoam 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 the dead whale that beached at Indian Wells Beach 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.

He and Town Councilwoman Julie Lofstad, who has been working on the legislation with the plastics committee, told the board they have polled business owners across the town and found no opposition.

“Ninety-eight percent of business people either supported it or had no objections,” Mr. Brolin said of the proposed ban. According to Dieter von Lehsten, co-chair of the Sustainability Committee, objections came only from businesspeople in Westhampton. “Except for Westhampton, everybody jumped on board,” he said.

Councilwoman Lofstad said she forwarded a draft of the proposal to chambers of commerce and the Southampton Business Alliance a month ago and had received no response.

Each time the board talked about shortening the lead time before the ban would take effect, there was applause from Surfrider Foundation volunteers in the meeting room who supported the plastic straw and polystyrene ban. Initially suggested as a six-month lead time, board members appeared to settle on a four-month interval so the ban could still take effect in time for Memorial Day Weekend if it adopted this winter.

“We applaud you and your efforts to help us push back against the tide of garbage and the damage we have been doing to our environment, said Surfrider volunteer Tom Olezczuk at the Town Board work session. He said the group was glad that the board appeared inclined to support the “shorter schedule” for the ban to take effect. “We’re way behind schedule in trying to save our planet.”

This week, East Hampton Town officials discussed that town’s own proposed ban on polystyrene. The proposed legislation was originally introduced in October. During the Town Board’s Tuesday work session, Councilwoman Sylvia Overby said the law had been amended to ensure school districts would not have to comply with the law as a food commissary, but that food trucks would be subject to a proposed ban.

Councilman David Lys said he had also discussed the proposal with fishery wholesalers — specifically Gosman’s and Stuart’s Seafood — who are in favor of the ban.

“They don’t use it much now, they appreciate it and the understand the intent of the law,” said Mr. Lys.

On Thursday, it is expected the town board will vote to set a public hearing on the ban for its January 17 meeting.