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State Street: D.C. inspector says bag tax can carry business support

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At last week's Senate Environment and Energy Committee meeting, representatives from the Washington, D.C., Department `of the Environment said a two-year-old surcharge on disposable shopping bags has been a success.

Kate Judson, an inspector working on the D.C. program, said it hasn't faced much pushback from the business community.

"We were surprised that businesses were very supportive," she told the committee.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Piscataway) wants to create a similar program in New Jersey. If enacted, Smith thinks it will find a similar reception here.

"Businesses in D.C. have felt that they're not only supporting a good environmental initiative that helps customers," Smith said, "but at the same time, there's no cost for them, because the costs are covered."

New Jersey's program would let retailers keep 1 cent per bag, or 2 cents if they voluntarily set up a program giving customers a 5-cent credit for bringing their own re-usable bags.

The rest of the money would go to cleaning the Barnegat Bay — a task even more important after Hurricane Sandy, Smith said.

Despite Smith's optimism, business group have raised concerns about the New Jersey plan. Mary Ellen Peppard, assistant vice president for government affairs at the New Jersey Food Council, said many stores have already implemented recycling programs, reusable bag rebates and other green initiatives. The Food Council represents grocery stores and suppliers.

Mary Ellen Peppard

"We support consumer awareness and education," she said. "We don't support these mandates. We also don't think this is the right time to do this."

Smith said he applauds stores' voluntary efforts. He sees his bill as a way for the state to take a next step and become a national leader. That notion concerns David Asselin, executive director of the D.C.-based American Progressive Bag Alliance.

Asselin said the D.C. program has already amounted to a $5 million tax on residents. He said New Jersey has 700 jobs in plastic bag manufacturing and recycling that could be threatened by the bill.

"I think what we need to do is concentrate on recycling," he said. "There are … great opportunities for recycling to grow in New Jersey through take-back programs at the retailers."

The bill passed Smith's committee 4-0, but it wasn't on the full Senate's Dec. 20 voting agenda. Peppard said she's had "very positive" conversations with lawmakers, and is "trying to make sure that this doesn't move any further."

Smith said he thinks the bill's chances of becoming law are about "50/50." Even if it doesn't pass, though, Smith vowed to renew the idea again next term.

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