SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – A bill passed bythe New Jersey Senate last month may have many opting to use reusable bags at the supermarket, drug store, and other retailers.
Bill A3267, if signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, would impose a 5-cent fee on single-use bags in chains or any store with retail space exceeding 2,000 square feet. Murphy has just over a month to decide on the bill, which if signed into law, would go into effect on Oct. 1, 2018.
The bill coincides with China’s stringent new regulations that exclude plastic bags from recycling and also directs the majority of its tax revenue to the ‘Healthy Schools and Community Lead Abatement Fund,’ a program that would address lead hazards in schools and residences.
“I am not a fan of adding ordinances and regulations. They so often have unexpected consequences. This one requires new layers of bureaucracy to administer collecting the fees and the lead abatement fund,” said Alice Tempel, recycling coordinator for the Borough of South Plainfield. “It creates a revenue stream for a worthy purpose, but it does not provide an estimate of how much the fee is expected to generate for the fund.”
Tempel also feels it is unclear what the short- and long-term effects of this bill will be. “Short term, social media will be flooded with arguments from supporters and opponents and, long term, people will get used to the increased cost of carry-out,” said Tempel, adding, “Some percentage of the population will switch to reusable bags. Maybe the funding will result in lead remediation that would not have otherwise happened.”
The District of Columbia implemented a similar tax on plastic bags in 2010, which resulted in a 60 percent decrease in household use of disposable bags; D.C. stores also altered their practices, according to a DOEE survey, with 79 percent of businesses providing fewer single-use bags to customers. Additionally, in 2015, Hawaii passed a statewide plastic bag ban.
Tempel, however, feels Washington, D.C.’s experience is ‘ambiguous. “Although the number of plastic bags in the river seems to have decreased, the revenue from the 5-cent fee has stayed steady, which means people are using the same number of plastic bags,” she said.
The New Jersey Food Council (NJFC), an alliance of New Jersey food retailers and their suppliers, supports Bill A3267 because of its universal guidelines for stores. “Our industry recognizes the need for a balanced solution...providing retailers with a uniform and standard policy, rather than forcing food stores to comply with a confusing patchwork of municipal ordinances,” said NJFC President Linda Doherty in a press release.
“We shouldn’t be using plastics at all, even if the state would wind up generating some funds from a bag fee,” said Janet Tauro, Clean Water Action’s NJ Board Chair in a press release. “Some things are just more important than money like environmental and public health.”
Plastic bags, said Tempel, are a ‘pernicious form of litter.’ “Plastic bags are a bad kind of litter aesthetically because they blow around and get caught in visible places like shrubbery, and sometimes places you can’t even reach to clear them out, like trees. They can clog storm drains. Animals can get tangled in them; some animals eat them,” she said. “The plastic degrades from exposure to UV light and weathering, and breaks into tiny pieces, but they do not decompose like paper. The tiny pieces are eaten by small animals like worms and oysters, and get into the food chain.”
Tempel, however, noted that the misconception is that ‘a single plastic grocery bag has a bigger environmental footprint than a reusable tote bag.’ She said that a comparative lifecycle study published in 2008 by the U. K. Environment Agency found that ‘single-use plastic bags had the smallest carbon footprint – 2 kg carbon/bag – of any of the kinds of carryout bags studied, including various kinds of plastic and cloth reusable bags.’
“You need to use a cotton tote bag hundreds of times to make up for the environmental impact of its manufacture in terms of single-use bags avoided,” said Tempel. “However, you can use it hundreds of times, so it is worth using to avoid the negative impacts of single-use plastic bags.”