LIVINGSTON, NJ — Although the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily halted the Township of Livingston’s plans to adopt an ordinance regulating the use of plastic bags at local businesses and township facilities, the conversation recently resurfaced after Gov. Phil Murphy announced plans to sign a similar executive order for the entire state.

The Livingston Township Council had received an official draft of the localized ordinance from Livingston’s Ad Hoc Plastics Committee and was on the verge of finalizing it when the coronavirus outbreak hit New Jersey. Deputy Mayor Shawn Klein, who has been a champion of all environmental issues in Livingston, prompted the council to revisit the topic last week in hopes that there might still be a “small window” of time left for the township to pass an ordinance of its own before the governor’s is signed into law. 

Klein explained that because the state regulations would not go into effect until 18 months after being signed, having a local ordinance in place would minimize the use of plastic bags in Livingston for an additional year. Although all five council members have been highly supportive of the ordinance, they ultimately did not introduce the ordinance due to a lack of appropriate time to gather public input as well as an overall concern about the additional strain it might cause for local businesses that have been struggling due to the pandemic. 

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“There are estimates that an average family will use about 1500 bags in a year—so if you have 10,000 households in Livingston, that's 15-million bags,” said Klein. “I'd like to think Livingston is better than most people, maybe not as wasteful. So let's say maybe it’s not 15 million, let's say it's 5 million—that's still a huge amount of bags, and so there's really something to accomplish here.”

Adding that there would be a “six-month buffer built in” to any ordinance passed now, Klein expressed optimism that businesses would be in a better place by the time it goes into effect and that the ordinance can always be amended or pushed back if not.  

“In six months, the world is probably going to look like a much more normal place—that's first of all,” he said. “Second of all, if it didn't [look more normal], we could always just amend it and kick it back a little further. But if we don’t pass something right now, the governor is going to sign his legislation, and then it'll be too late for us because we're not grandfathered in.”

In order to continue protecting the small businesses that “have been having a hard time” due to the pandemic, council members suggested adding “a square footage allowance” into the bill so that any businesses less than a certain number of square feet would not be affected by the local ordinance. According to Klein, this amendment would have ensured that the only heavily affected businesses would include supermarkets such as ShopRite and larger retailers such as CVS.

“There are a lot of articles that show that the big chains have done very, very well through COVID—maybe even better than ever—and so that’s why the square footage came up,” said Klein. “This would affect mostly the big supermarkets, especially when you put square footage in; and they didn't want paper or plastic anyway, so we could just do what the state is doing and just have it begin a year early.”

However, time constraints have prevented the council from being able to properly amend, introduce, hold a public hearing on and adopt an ordinance ahead of the state’s timeline.

According to Township Attorney Sharon Weiner, the governor has 45 days to sign the bill, which was officially put on his desk on Sept. 24. If he waits the full 45 days, Weiner explained that the bill would go into effect on Nov. 6 and supersede any preexisting legislation within the municipalities.

She also noted that after introducing a local ordinance, the township must provide at least 10 days’ notification of a public hearing. If the council had introduced the ordinance during its most recent meeting on Oct. 5, it would have put the township five days beyond the statewide bill’s effective date unless the council called for an emergency special meeting during the week of Oct. 12. 

According to the state bill, a municipality cannot "adopt any rule, regulation or ordinance after the effective date.”

Time constraints aside, council members agreed that the effect of the pandemic on both businesses and consumers also needed to be taken into account when discussing the ordinance.

“If for some reason the governor doesn't sign this bill, we can make it anything we want and pass our own bill,” said Councilman Ed Meinhardt. “In general, I think that a lot of these businesses in town are really still struggling with COVID and trying to get their feet back on the ground. I’m all about saving the environment, [but] I just think we have to worry about the livelihood of our businesses as well.”

Councilman Al Anthony added that the plastic bag regulation was a much more hot-button topic in Livingston prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, stating that he has not "seen a lot on this from people in town” over the last few months.

“In fact, the only people in town that have said something know my environmental bias [and] have said, ‘I'm glad you didn't pass the plastic bags [ordinance] because I like the disposables right now with COVID,’” said Anthony. “I think in a perfect world we wouldn't be rushed right now, we’d put it out and get consideration from our plastic bags committee and public input; but it sounds like we'd have to rush this.”

Anthony also reiterated his support of the statewide bill and encouraged members of the council and the Livingston Ad Hoc Plastics Committee to join him in attending the signing of it.

Councilman Michael Vieira said he would have supported introducing the local ordinance during the Oct. 5 meeting, and Mayor Rudy Fernandez said he would have done so as well if the ordinance could have been introduced that night with the square-footage language included to protect small businesses.

Ultimately, the council decided not to introduce the ordinance after hearing feedback from Beth Lippman, who serves as executive director of the Livingston Business Improvement District as well as co-chair of the Livingston Ad Hoc Plastics Committee.

Noting that the township has already lost a few businesses as a result of the pandemic and that she expects to lose even more in the next six months, Lippman also reiterated that even some of the most successful businesses are going to take “a long time to come back up.” She expressed that although she supports the state’s regulations, rushing to implement a local ordinance would create an additional layer of stress for the already struggling businesses.

“Even if COVID’s over with, they’ve lost almost half a year of business at this point,” said Lippman. “I think 18 months gives businesses time to recuperate, hopefully, from everything they’ve been going through, and then deal with the recycling issue. Square footage might be a little better, but I also think most businesses have struggled. I think that we have to think about this; I don't think we should just jump and say let's do it.

"Our small businesses can't afford to have anything else thrown on them right now, and I do think, also, that people don't want to carry in their own bags right now. They're still worried about catching things, bringing things in, and that's still an issue for the rest of the people. They're not coming back to our businesses yet, or not in the number they should be; and our businesses are doing business, but they're struggling. They're just maybe keeping their heads above water." 

To read more about the drafted ordinance that was presented to the governing body prior to the pandemic, CLICK HERE

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