SOMERSET, NJ – After a bill proposing a statewide ban on single-use plastics stalled in the state Legislature earlier this month, Franklin Township joined the growing list of municipalities no longer waiting on the state to take the lead.
“I had said, ‘Let’s wait until the state passes it. Why add confusion?" Mayor Phillip Kramer said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “But now I can’t count on them passing it so I thought it was time to step up.”
Lawmakers in the state Senate passed the bill 21-14, but the state Assembly did not vote before the legislative session expired. New Jersey’s two-year legislative session ended earlier this month without a vote on the bill, meaning the measure needed to be reintroduced.
“We waited all Fall for the legislature to pass its bill and when it came right down to it, they didn’t. Apparently, the governor and speaker of the assembly never got on the same page about it, so I wrote one,” said First Ward Councilman Theodore Chase.
State Sens. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, and Linda R. Greenstein, D-Mercer – who both sponsored the previous version of the bill – reintroduced the statewide ban to the legislature on Jan. 14.
This version, like the one that died in the state Assembly, bans Styrofoam cups and food containers as well as single-use paper and plastic bags over the course of two years. The legislation also bans plastic straws, but restaurants would be allowed to offer them to customers that ask for them. Under the bill, money from the Clean Communities Program Fund would be made available for a public education campaign.
The draft version of the ordinance presented at the council meeting is based on the state’s language, and like its counterpart at the state level, would ban single-use plastic and paper bags, Styrofoam cups and containers, as well as make single-use plastic straws only available upon request.
Should the council introduce and adopt the ordinance in any form it would be the first municipality in Somerset County to do so. There are 32 towns and counties in New Jersey with similar legislation in place, with another 14 bans already adopted and waiting to take effect.
In its current form, the statewide ban would supersede local and county prohibitions after two years.
While the mayor and much of council expressed support for the ban last night, Kramer said that he is wary of unintended consequences.
“This is government interference into our lives, and I take that very seriously, but one of my main concerns is that some of the earlier ordinances that were passed around the country had unintended consequences,” he said. “So, I think we have to be very careful. I am a tree hugger, and I guess a turtle hugger, but I don’t want to do it the wrong way.”
The concerns officials have over the minutiae of the ordinance, however, don’t overrule their belief in the necessity of the ban.
“Plastic permeates our daily lives,” said Councilwoman-At-Large Kimberly Francois.
According to N. Dini Checko, a project director with the nonprofit Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, recent policy changes in China, Indonesia and India – where much of our recycling ends up – turned banning single-use plastics into an inevitability.
“They’re not taking our recycling,” she said. “Recycling numbers have dramatically dropped to under 10 percent and, as far as plastic bag recycling is concerned, that’s less than 1 percent.”
Checko said that the average American uses 500 single-use plastic bags each year. That translates to 31 million bags that end up in the garbage each year from Franklin Township alone.
“That’s staggering. In New Jersey, we’re talking about 4.4 billion per year in just bags,” she said.
In its current form, the draft of the ordinance in Franklin still needs officials to fine-tune details like enforcement and ensuring the ban isn’t a burden on some residents.
Councilwoman-At-Large Crystal Pruitt expressed concerns that charging more for paper bags when shoppers forget their reusable bags – a method of encouraging the use of reusable bags brought up at the meeting – would adversely affect those already experiencing economic hardship.
“When we talk about banning these bags, we do have a socioeconomic component that we have to consider. It’s easy for me to just be like ‘Yeah, I don’t need bags. I’ll buy these really bougie, expensive reusable bags and be cute,’ but I have the privilege to do so,” she said.
In Lambertville, the town supplied reusable bags to its almost 4,000 residents. Township Manager Robert Vornlocker said that giving free reusable bags to the township’s nearly 70,000 residents isn’t economically viable.
However, Chase suggested bags could be provided through the Franklin Food Bank to those in need. He said that this could be one of many solutions to the problem of the ban putting undue stress on already vulnerable communities.
After some quick research, Vornlocker said that the Township could supply bags to populations experiencing economic hardship.
“It’s not some astronomical amount of money, so we could consider it down the road. I think that if council wants to consider that we could explore that further as we go down the road, and not just with a partnership with the food bank, but just in general, there are other outlets that could be utilized as well,” he said.
Who would be responsible for enforcing the ban is still up for discussion.
Chase said that the Somerset County Health Department, which already inspects grocery stores, would be an obvious candidate, but the county wouldn’t be responsible for enforcing the ordinance in stores not selling food.
“They may not want to and they wouldn’t inspect stores selling only non-food items, but of course it will be up to the public,” he said. “Many of our ordinances only get enforced because somebody comes and makes a complaint.”
As the ordinance is written now, the county Health Department would issue a warning to businesses in violation of the ban. The first offense would come with a written warning followed by fines of $100 for the second violation, $200 for the third and $500 for each additional offense.
TAPinto Franklin/Somerset is independently owned and operated by Malik A. Lyons FHS Class of 93’ Graduate.
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