With New Jersey's 4.5 billion-per-year plastic bag habit leaving a massive amount of unrecycled waste floating in the ocean, a wave of municipalities are banning single-use plastic bags or placing fees on their use.
The Warwick Town Board, for example, decided after a series of public hearings earlier this month to let voters decide in November on a ban or bag fee, while others such as Longport, Tea Neck, Long Beach, Harvey Cedars and Ventnor City already have passed similar laws. Monmouth Beach and Belmar are considering them as well, and Point Pleasant was scheduled to vote on an ordinance May 21.
Retail associations see the piecemeal policies as ineffective environmentally and unfair to retail.
“The challenge we are facing at the moment is the unworkable patchwork of definitions and provisions from town to town that becomes confusing, costly and unfair to both retailers and customers,” said Linda Doherty, president of the New Jersey Food Council.
Businesses need a single statewide policy that doesn’t unfairly burden consumers or retailers, she said.
Assemblyman John McKeon, D-27th District, sponsored Assembly Bill 1218, which would address plastic bags statewide by decreasing and eventually banning their use. Restaurants and stores in violation of the ban could then be fined up to $10,000 for each offense in the latest version of McKeon’s bill. His first on the issue was introduced as far back as 2007.
Another bill, which has the support of the NJFC, would assess a 5-cent fee on both paper and plastic bags at retail locations over 2,000 square feet or retailers with 10 locations or more. Assembly Bill 3267 would apportion 1 cent to the retailer to offset bag costs and four cents to a lead abatement fund.
“Food retail is a penny-on-the-dollar business, so any reduction in costs is welcome,” said Doherty. “Also, in this new economy, with online e-commerce competition who do not have these bag costs, the savings helps. The additional penny will help retailers administer, educate and promote the policy to our customers.”
A3267 was modeled after a bag fee program in Montgomery County, Md., implemented in 2012. The New Jersey bill, introduced in February, remains under committee review.
Ventnor City Commissioner Lance Landgraf said the lack of progress on the state level inspired its ordinance, which effective in October places a 5-cent fee per bag to encourage shoppers to use reusable bags made of canvas or recycled material. Ventnor City recently received a $10,000 grant from Sustainable Jersey and the PSEG Foundation to purchase such bags and put together an educational program for the community.
“If the state wants to [address the plastic bag issue], I’m completely on board,” Landgraf said. “They made no effort to move [plastic bag legislation] forward so we took it upon ourselves in Ventnor to put it out there so that other communities would see it, and maybe that would get Trenton to do it.”
As Landgraf sees it, it’s a matter of consumer habit.
“At Sam’s Club, at the grocery store, at the liquor store, my wife and I bring our own reusable bags. It’s a lifestyle. You have to get used to them,” he said. “People say they forgot them … oh, did you forget your wallet? Your car keys? It’s a change in how you live.”
But at the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association, consumer satisfaction is a high priority, and president John Holub considers local legislation — particularly outright bans — a hindrance to that.
“This is a consumer convenience issue, a consumer behavior issue, and at the end of the day, we want to provide the best experience possible for our customers,” said Holub, adding the organization opposes local plastic bag ordinances.
At Ozzie’s Luncheonette, the only restaurant affected by Longport’s bag ordinance, the owner covers the 10-cent bag fee herself.
“A lot of them don’t come in with reusable bags, and I’m not going to put a 10-cent charge on a customer, I just won’t,” said the owner, who declined to give her name in a phone interview.
Holub warned against plastic bag legislation that promotes paper bag use in its place, as paper bags present other issues, such as more trucks being needed to transport an equal amount of paper bags than plastic bags, which not only increases costs for retailers but also has a bigger carbon footprint.
“I wish there was a simple solution, but it’s a little more complicated than just doing away with plastic,” Holub said. “And when it comes to the world of retail, this is the one issue that has the most individual pieces of legislation. At one point there was eight or nine bills — mandatory recycling, fees, bans. It’s a really interesting issue that bags have had a multitude of proposed solutions. Usually it’s one or two, but for whatever reason, for bags, there’s a whole host of opinions on what to do and how to do it.”
Even with the local ordinance, Ventnor City’s Landgraf hopes that the issue will be addressed statewide as well.
“We know that Ventnor City creating a fee for these bags won’t save the environment, but it’ll save a piece of ours,” he said. “Hopefully with the summer visitors who come in, maybe they’ll see it and bring it home to their own communities and present it to their own legislators.”