CATSKILL — In light of recent laws at the state level, Greene County lawmakers reviewed proposed legislation to ban polystyrene, more commonly known as Styrofoam.
Legislator William Lawrence, R-Cairo, has been exploring this type of legislation for the past few years and now that Gov. Andrew Cuomo passed a law banning single-use plastic bags at grocery stores, Lawrence feels the timing is right, he said Wednesday night. “Originally the bill [for Styrofoam] focused on chain stores but I think its time we do away with it,” he said.
Lawrence worked with former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Judith Enck on developing the latest version of the law.
Enck grew up in Cairo and attended St. Patrick’s High School in Catskill, so environmental issues in the region are especially personal for her.
“In high school my friend’s brother had a motorboat and we would go water skiing on the Hudson,” Enck recalled. “I was so worried about falling in the water because it had a rainbow sheen on it.”
Enck said she believes that the best way to fight plastic pollution is here at home.
“It’s easier to tackle at the local level,” she said.
Although the statewide plastic ban is coming in March, Ulster County has already initiated one, Enck said. Additionally the county charges a 5-cent fee for paper bags to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags.
Ulster County also passed legislation to make plastic straws, single-use utensils and condiments available upon request, Enck said.
“It saves businesses money,” she said.
Ulster, Albany and Suffolk counties, as well as New York City, have banned Styrofoam, Enck said.
“[Albany County] is debating the paper bag fees and straws upon request,” she said. “Greene County’s turn is next. I think we should remind everyone that we want to keep Greene County green.”
Restaurants can switch to alternative materials for takeout containers such as aluminum or cardboard, Enck said, adding that many businesses have already made the transition.
The world at large needs to rethink its plastic usage, Enck said.
“Unless we change the way we package, by 2025, for every three pounds of fish, we will have one pound of plastic,” she said.
Once discarded into the environment, plastic can get broken down into smaller pieces that are ingested by animals and often are later ingested by humans, Enck said.
“We produce 8.8 million tons of plastic per year,” Enck said. “Only nine percent of plastics are recycled. This is becoming much worse because China is not accepting recyclables. Styrofoam is not recyclable. It has to be burned or buried.”
A study conducted by the environmental watchdog organization Riverkeeper found that Styrofoam was the Hudson River’s most common pollutant, Enck said.
Polystyrene is considered a probable human carcinogen, she said.
“It migrates into our food, especially hot, fatty, acidic foods,” Enck said.
There are 408,000 chemicals used in food packaging, Enck said.
A study conducted by researchers at the State University College at Fredonia found that 93% of bottled water contains microplastics, Enck said.
Legislator Michael Bulich, R-Catskill, questioned why the county needed more legislation when the community is already making strides to keep the river clean without legislation.
“Legislation banned PCBs,” Enck said. “The Clean Water Act prohibited the discharge of raw sewage into the river. We need a combination. There needs to be legislation and also education and public outreach.”
Legislature Chairman Patrick Linger, R-New Baltimore, said he believes a ban on Styrofoam would not stop people from littering.
“Other types of litter degrade,” Enck said. “Plastic lasts for centuries.”
Banning Styrofoam would save taxpayers money, she said.
“We’re paying a lot of money to ship out to Seneca Meadows,” she said. “I see this as a potential tax savings.”
Legislator Matthew Luvera, R-Catskill, asked if the other counties had data on how much money they were saving.
The bans were relatively new, Enck replied.
Linger was skeptical that banning Styrofoam would reduce tipping fees.
“We pay by the ton and Styrofoam is mostly air,” he said. “It might be less volume but not weight.”
A concern the county officials had when they last visited the topic was the expense of alternative products, Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden said.
“How much regulation can we put on local businesses if it’s going to be a hardship?” he said. “If it happens on a state level, it’s an even playing field.”
Vermont is the first state to ban plastic shopping bags, straws, drink stirrers and foam food packaging in a single bill.
No action was taken on the proposed ban Wednesday, but legislators were asked to review the document.