5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags approved by NJ lawmakers
TRENTON — Lawmakers don’t want to pass the tax and fee hikes Gov. Phil Murphy is looking for, but they have been advancing some he hasn’t requested – including a new 5-cent fee on every plastic and paper bag carried out of many restaurants and stores.
The revenue from the fee on single-use bags would supposedly be used to help pay for lead remediation programs. But the budget approved by Democratic lawmakers would divert the $23.4 million to instead pay for the Department of Environmental Protection budget.
Environmentalists favor a ban on plastic bags, saying they clog storm drains, increase reliance on natural gas and harm sea creatures. But they oppose the proposal, saying 5 cents per bag is not enough of a deterrent and that the law would prevent more towns from adopted local bans.
“My other real big concern is that we’re creating another fee that will just get robbed,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
“Maybe 10 years ago this was a good thing, but today we need to move forward with actually getting rid of plastics, not just charging a small fee,” Tittel said.
The bag fee was approved narrowly Thursday night: 41-32 by the Assembly and 23-16 by the Senate.
The fee would be required to be collected by drug stores, supermarkets or retail establishments that have over 2,000 square feet of retail space or are part of a chain with at least 10 locations. It would cover single-use compostable and non-compostable plastic and paper bags.
Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents packaging manufacturers, said the tax is regressive and too broad.
“It would actually probably have an impact on franchises like McDonald’s, for instance, where you really don’t have the option of whether or not to bring a re-usable bag,” Seaholm said. “Or you also don’t have the option of saying, ‘Well, would you like a bag with your fries and burger?’ You would just be forced to pay the five cents.”
Store operators would keep 1 cent of the fee collected, with the other 4 cents forwarded to the state.
The fee would start being charged Oct 1. It wouldn’t be charged to low-income residents who receive welfare or food assistance, though senior citizens would be charged the fee, after an exemption that was once in the proposal was removed.
The bill is based on a program in Montgomery County, Maryland, that led to a 60 percent reduction in bag usage for at least one chain of stores said Mary Ellen Peppard, assistant vice president for government affairs for the New Jersey Food Council.
Industry groups pushed for the fee to include paper bags. Peppard said paper bags would cost stores three to four times as much as plastic bags, if shoppers didn’t switch to reusable bags.
“A lot of the focus of the local ordinances has been on plastic, but the paper also has a significant environmental impact,” Peppard said.
“I think we all can agree that we need to do something about paper and plastic bags,” said Rocco D’Antonio, managing member of food-waste recycling company Organic Diversion. “The focus has always been on plastic, but the paper also has a very negative environmental impact, both from the manufacturing and the distribution standpoint.”
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said 80 percent of the waste picked up at the Jersey Shore during beach sweep cleanups come from plastics.
“We have an inundation of plastic bags. There’s 4 billion bags per year that are used in this state. That’s a huge number. And obviously those numbers don’t need to happen,” O’Malley said.
“We clearly are supportive of moving towards an eventual ban,” he said. “This fee not only doesn’t get us there but it cuts off our towns from taking action.”
The bill, S2600/A3267, would not supersede or preempt any municipal or county regulation or ordinance prohibiting single-use carryout bags that were adopted prior to the date the bill is enacted into law.
“Whatever we do, we have to move as quickly as possible,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex. “We should have moved eight years ago on this issue.”
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