More Environmental Plans Set for New York

Efforts to save the environment took precedence this Spring, as both New York State and Suffolk County legislators passed bills to further ban single-use plastic and implement waste reduction measures, with some going into effect by Jan 2020.  The Town of Brookhaven will be the first location for a compost facility east of the Mississippi River.

Suffolk County passed three bills April 9 that will ban Styrofoam containers and packing peanuts and make plastic straws available by request only. Styrofoam is a trademarked brand of single-use polystyrene foam.

“Polysterene is a concern for a number of reasons, not least for its impact on human health,” Kara Hahn, Suffolk County legislator (D-Setauket) who proposed the bill, said. Hahn along with other legislators, initiated the polystyrene ban back in 2013.

Styrene, a chemical that comprises polystyrene, was reclassified from a possible human carcinogen to a probable human carcinogen in 2018 by the World Health Organization, published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

“We’re really excited to begin to tackle the problem,” she said.

This comes after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the multi-faceted $175.5 billion state budget that will ban single-use plastic bags, making New York the second state after California to issue statewide legislation of this nature.

The bill exempts certain types of plastic bags, like newspaper, trash, shopping, and take-out bags as well as those used for meat, poultry, fish, produce, grains and candy. The budget, signed March 31, will also tackle food waste management. 

By 2022, businesses that produce more than two tons, on average, of waste a week and are within 25 miles of a compost facility will be required to donate food waste to pantries and compost non-edible food scraps.

Long Island produced about 2.2 million tons of solid waste and recycled about 582,000 tons of it in 2016, according to an Oct 2018 Newsday report.

The State Department of Conservation met with the New York State Restaurant Association, April 17, to examine definitions within the bills, figure out which establishments will comply with these regulations, and make sure restaurants have the education needed to put proper processes in place for waste management.

Long Islanders can expect to see a compost facility come into fruition by the end of this year. Large generators of food waste that meet these provisions will send it to the Long Island Compost facility in Yaphank, where it will be processed by an anaerobic digestion system.

“The earlier we can let folks know they’re included, the better they’ll be in terms of preparation,” Kevin Dugan, government affairs director for the New York State Restaurant Association, said.

The composter is set to take on 1,800 thousand tons of food waste per year. Composting breaks down waste, creating organic, nutrient-rich soil and diverts food from landfills. 

Anaerobic digestion happens in closed spaces where there is no oxygen and is the natural process in which microorganisms break down organic materials. The machine will not only compost food but produce renewable energy from the gases emitted during compost.

“We always think of food as a waste source, but here it’s a really valuable resource we can use,” Jordan Christensen, Hudson Valley Program Coordinator of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said.

The plastic bag ban will apply to businesses like hotels, supermarkets, colleges, restaurants and correctional facilities, yet provide an opt-out for cities and towns that wish to use paper bags for a five-cent fee. Forty percent of revenue collected will support local programs to buy reusable bags for people with low or fixed incomes and the remainder will go to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. 

Under Cuomo’s budget, restaurants can continue to provide take out bags; a loophole New York State Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, of District 9, wants to fill. 

There are 2,900 grocery stores and 50,000 eating and drinking establishments in the state of New York, according to the New York State Restaurant Association.

In the year since Suffolk County mandated a five-cent plastic bag fee, plastic bag use reduced by 80 percent, or an estimated 1.1 billion bags, according to an end of the year report produced by the Suffolk County Health Department and Education Committee, which was given to legislators a few weeks ago.

The five-cent fee was a “behavior changer”, Alexander Flood, the assemblywoman’s communication coordinator, said.

“The restaurants are just as big a contributor to the plastic pollution problem that it didn’t make sense to include grocery stores and mom-and-pop markets and let restaurants off the hook,” Flood said. 

Plastic bags interfere with wastewater treatment plants, pose a threat to fish and wildlife, and break down into micro-plastics, which can absorb toxins and leach chemicals, according to research published by Science Advances in 2017. These micro-plastics are ingested by wildlife and bioaccumulate up the food chain.

Of all our ocean’s plastic pollution, 80 percent originates as land-based trash, with polyethylene being the most prevalent plastic to appear in our oceans and waterways, according to The United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Plastic bags are usually made from both high and low-density forms of polyethylene, which are fossil fuel derivatives, according to a 2017 study done by Travis Wagner, the National Center for Biotechnology Information, United States National Library of Medicine, and National Institutes of Health. 

“We are in the midst of a solid waste and recycling crisis right now on Long Island, through the state and really throughout the country,” Christensen said.

In November, the Town of Brookhaven returned to a dual-stream process, where paper and cardboard is separately recycled from plastic and metals. This followed after China, the world’s leading recyclable buyer, created the National Sword policy to ban recycling imports, which went into effect January 2018. The towns of Huntington, Smithtown and Southold have since transitioned as well.

“We can’t recycle it, so the only thing we can do is ban it,” Christensen said.

The anaerobic digester is expected to be completed by the end of this year, after finalizing details with Long Island Power Authority.

The three Suffolk County single-use plastic bills are set to go into effect in January 2020.

Katherine Hoey

Stony Brook University journalism student. I’ve always felt a drive to try to change the world and what better way to be apart of the historical conversation of our time than through journalism.