SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Just as stricter recycling rules hit Maplewood and South Orange, the entire state could face a new tax on paper and plastic bags. A new bill passed in New Jersey Senate this June may have you opting for reusable bags at the supermarket and drug store.

Bill A3267 would impose a 5-cent fee on single-use bags in chains or any store with retail space exceeding 2,000 square feet. If signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, the proposed law would go into effect on October 1, 2018. The bill coincides with China’s stringent new regulations that exclude plastic bags from recycling, which as a result, means SOMA residents can no longer include them  in curbside recycling collection.

Prior to the China ban, plastic bags were already not supposed to be included in curbside recycling, as the Essex County sorting facility has difficulty processing them, explained South Orange Village Trustee Walter Clarke, who currently serves as the village trustee liaison on the South Orange Environmental Commission. 

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"They become entwined in the sorting equipment and it costs a great deal of time and money to stop and remove them," said Clarke.

Murphy currently has just over a month to decide on the bill, according to the governor’s office. The bill 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.

Some critics call for stricter legislation, advocating for the ban of plastic altogether.

“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.”

The tax would frustrate South Orange and Maplewood residents at first, said Clarke.

“It will play out probably as it has in other places, it will be a little bumpy at first,” Clarke said. “People will be annoyed because they are used to a level of convenience, they’re used to doing things a certain way.”

The proposed law could provide the greatest benefit to local businesses, he said. Clarke has approached store owners potentially affected by the bill, including Ashley Market, Stop & Shop and Kings. The owners were flexible and simply wanted to do what was right, Clarke said, but were previously unsure how to reduce plastic waste.

The District of Columbia implemented a similar tax in 2010, which resulted in a 60 percent decrease in household disposable bag use. D.C. stores also altered their practices, according to a DOEE survey, with 79 percent of businesses providing fewer single-use bags to customers. Hawaii, on the other hand, passed a statewide plastic bag ban in 2015.

State legislation — as opposed to local South Orange and Maplewood plastic ordinances — guarantees consistency, Clarke said. “If South Orange had a particular strict ban, how many people would go across a very near border to another grocery store?” He said. “Statewide, that is much less of a concern now...it levels the playing field.”

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.

Still, Clarke said, there is no simple formula for environmental legislation. Despite its imperfections, he believes the bag tax could lead to stronger laws and action on the federal level.

“If nothing else it will be a big awareness creator,” Clarke said. “There is still an issue where the average person does not feel this as a problem in any way and, frankly, if it costs them some more money at the grocery store a lot more people will start thinking about this.”

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