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NJ Lawmakers OK 5-Cent Fee on Plastic/Paper Carryout Bags

If Murphy signs on, law could reduce clutter in landfills and landscapes, but it won’t deliver money to lead-abatement programs — as originally intended

Plastic bags
Credit: Creative Commons

By the slimmest of margins, lawmakers yesterday voted to impose a nickel fee on plastic and paper bags, a strategy intended to reduce the use of single-use carryout bags.

The bill (A-3267) aims to tackle the mounting problem of coping with the millions of bags that end up in garbage dumps and waterways and littering roads and landscape across the state.

The legislation, approved without debate in both houses, now heads to the governor, where the debate over the measure is sure to intensify. Backers say the fee will encourage consumers and stores to switch to reusable bags.

“More stores have made the change and now provide more environmentally friendly bags for customers,’’ said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, the bill’s sponsor. “This bill encourages more stores to get on board and move away from using the bags that are harmful to the environment.’’

Some environmental groups oppose the bill, preferring to ban plastic bags outright. They also are against a provision that would pre-empt individual towns from adopting bans on single-use plastic bags as some communities are doing.

But the New Jersey Food Council backed the bill, arguing a patchwork of assorted bans and fees on bags would create confusion and increase costs to consumers and retail stores.

Under the bill, the money raised by the fee is targeted to go to lead abatement programs, a recurring problem in New Jersey, where 3,500 children were found to have elevated lead levels in their blood.

Whether that money — projected at about $23 million just from plastic bags — ever is spent on lead abatement programs is another question. The money was meant to remove and replace lead-based fixtures, plumbing, and pipes in schools and communities, as well as stripping lead paint from schools, apartments, and houses.

In the fiscal 2019 state budget approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature yesterday, there is language in the spending plan that would instead divert the money to the general fund. The budget supersedes other bills enacted by lawmakers.

Gov. Phil Murphy has vowed to veto that budget. Some opponents say they hope Murphy follows through on his threat.

“This is a cynical manipulation of the legislative process to find money for the state budget,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It’s why people don’t trust politicians.’’

There is a growing push across the country to do something about the proliferation of plastic bags in the environment. Each year, Americans use 380 billion plastic bags, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. So far, only two states have banned them.

The bill barely won approval. In the Assembly, it garnered only 41 votes, the minimum needed for passage. The Senate bill passed 22-16, one vote more than necessary.

If signed by the governor, the fee on bags would take effect on October 1, 2018.

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