Reusable shopping bag measure advances in NJ

December 18, 2012 3:04:12 PM PST
A bag that once held someone's groceries is now pollution.

"You know how long that takes to be biodegradable? Years. I don't know how many years, but a lot of years," Bob Muchnicki of Lyndhurst said.

Some New Jersey lawmakers want to make the bags as unappealing as possible. A bill to do just that passed a committee vote on Monday. It calls for charging customers 5 cents for every new plastic or paper bag they receive during a shopping trip.

"I think that's ridiculous! I think we pay for enough in the grocery store, that we don't need to pay for plastic bags," Susan Trizzino of Elmwood Park said.

That kind of objection may be the silver lining for people who like the idea of never seeing these bags again.

"I know plastic bags are not good for the environment, so if we can get rid of them - any way to deter people from using them, I think would be a good idea," Glenn Canlas of Bloomfield said.

"I guess we have to do what we have to to protect the environment," Donna Edone of Paramus said.

We found a perfect example just a few yards away from where we did those interviews: plastic bags wrapped around the vegetation in the wetlands of the Meadowlands.

We met Susan and Sharon coming from an Aldi Market, where they bought reusable bags. The store has never offered plastic bags. You bring your own reusable bags.

The bill says all stores would have to offer the same bargain if the bag ban becomes law. A similar law adopted Washington, D.C. nearly three years ago reduced the number of plastic bags ending up in the nearby Anacostia River by 60 percent and caused three-quarters of residents to cut their use of disposable bags, according to a follow-up survey.

"By charging a nominal 5-cent fee for each paper and plastic bag, customers become incentivized to either forego a bag or bring a reusable bag rather than pay the 5-cent fee," said Keith Anderson, interim director of the district's Department of the Environment, who came to Trenton to testify about the bill.

Anderson said D.C.'s 2009 bag law requires 4,300 food and liquor stores to charge customers 5 cents per disposable plastic or paper bag, generating $2.1 million a year for river cleanup. Merchants keep up to 2 cents if they offer an environmentally friendly alternative. Random inspections are conducted by secret shoppers, he said, and violators can be reported via a tip line. Warnings are issued for first offenses but fines for continued noncompliance can reach $500. Most businesses are not troubled by the law, he said, because it's enabled them to order fewer bags, thereby reducing their bottom lines.

Sen. Bob Smith of Piscataway, who chairs the environmental panel and is sponsoring the bill, said New Jersey could look forward to $28 million in revenue from the law, which could be dedicated to helping regenerate Barnegat Bay. The bay, which has deteriorated because of overdevelopment and storm water runoff, was battered further by Hurricane Sandy.

Several other countries including China have banned plastic bags or instituted fees for single-use bags. In the United States, nearly 100 communities or cities have passed laws limiting throw-away bag use, led by San Francisco, which passed a disposable bag ban in 2007.

Zach McCue of Clean Ocean Action, a coalition of more than 130 environmental organizations in New Jersey and New York, said the manufacture of thin-film plastic bags consumes millions of trees and barrels of oil, takes up space in landfills for a long time and is harmful to marine life, especially birds and sea turtles that ingest the bags, or pieces of bags, or get entangled in them.

But a representative of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based group of bag manufacturers, said the ban amounts to a tax on businesses and would hurt some of the 30,000 who work in American bag-making factories.

He said bag laws have not been shown to reduce the amount of plastic bags recovered from waterways.

Information from the Associated Press in this story.

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