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Poloncarz seeks ban on plastic shopping bags in Erie County

A trip to the supermarket for many shoppers means coming home with groceries and goods – and plastic bags, lots of them.

The bags end up in the trash or blow around yards or even get caught in trees.

But the era of plastic bags, long a staple of the checkout line, could eventually come to an end in Erie County.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz wants plastic bags banned at all stores.

“It’s unnecessary. It hurts our environment,” Poloncarz told The Buffalo News. “They end up in landfills and are generally not biodegradable. They blow around all over the place and end up in our waterways.”

Eight other communities in downstate New York and Long Island have enacted some type of ban on plastic bags within the last few years, according to the retail packaging industry. If Poloncarz succeeds in pushing through a ban, Erie County would become the first upstate community with one.

There’s still a long way to go before such a measure could come before the County Legislature for a vote. The county would need to pay for and conduct a study to research the impact such a measure would have on the environment, as well as on retailers and consumers. As part of that study, the county would host public hearings to gather input from those who would be impacted by a ban.

The first step comes Thursday, when those attending Poloncarz’s State of the County address at the Buffalo History Museum will be handed a blue reusable bag with the county seal as a parting gift. Poloncarz intends to give away 300 of the reusable bags to highlight his initiative.

He will also request the study, which would cost between $50,000 and $70,000 and could take eight to 10 months to complete.

The study would consider alternative proposals, said Thomas J. Dearing, county commissioner of environment and planning.

One of the options would be to require grocery stores and retailers to charge customers a fee for each plastic bag – and even paper bag – that is used. If that happened, the county would need to figure out how to allocate the revenue. “We’re going to look at it all,” Dearing said.

Poloncarz said he prefers to simply ban disposable plastic bags altogether because charging a fee for the bags would amount to a tax that would disproportionately hurt the poor.

Given all that needs to be studied, any proposal to ban or limit the use of plastic bags would likely not come before the Legislature until next year.

For now, Poloncarz wants the Legislature to approve funding for the environmental impact review.

This is not the first time Poloncarz has embarked on an anti-plastic campaign. He also supported the microbead ban last year that prohibits retailers from selling beauty and body products that contain tiny plastic beads for their abrasive and exfoliating properties.

His proposal to ban plastic bags comes as one of 10 initiatives he’s rolling out as part of his State of the County address. He has already previewed some, including his call to ban cigarettes and related products from pharmacy retailers, spend $3.75 million over the next five years to combat lead poisoning in children, and update the county’s ethics law.

“I think it is the most policy-laden State of the County that any county executive has proposed in a long time,” Poloncarz told reporters and editors at The News on Tuesday.

Environmentalists who favor a plastic bag ban say that Americans use and throw out about 100 billion plastic shopping bags a year and that the average American family takes home about 1,500 of them annually. Less than 6 percent of lightweight disposable bags are recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The rest of these nonbiodegradable bags wind up in landfills and in waterways and oceans, where they can be mistakenly eaten by marine life, environmentalists say, and the bags get stuck in plants and natural areas, and litter streets and yards. The bags also require energy to make.

Communities in at least 17 states have passed laws banning plastic bags.

Industry advocates say that plastic shopping bags constitute only one-half of 1 percent of municipal waste in the United States and that all plastic bags are reusable and recyclable. Recycling of plastic bags is on the rise, they say, and paper bags create more greenhouse gasses, lead to higher transportation and storage costs, and higher costs for businesses.

They also highlighted individual news stories indicating that some stores have seen an increase in shoplifting related to the reusable bags, as well as shopping basket theft as a result of bans on plastic bags. In addition, they say, heavier-duty reusable bags aren’t reused nearly enough to justify the higher energy, cost and landfill space associated with them.