Taxing Plastic and Paper Bags, Senate Bill Could Make Grocery Shopping Green

Tom Johnson | December 18, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Environmentalists applaud proposed measure, industry argues it won't do much to reduce litter

If legislators have their way, when New Jerseyans go shopping in the future, they may pay a small tax if they want their groceries packed in a paper or plastic bag.

In a move to curb plastic bags from littering the landscape and waterways, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved a bill (S-812) yesterday that would impose a five-cent surcharge on consumers who fail to bring a reusable bag to their grocery or convenience store.

The move was opposed by manufacturers of plastic bags, who claimed stores already are voluntarily recycling plastic bags, which they and a member of the Senate panel argued constitute a minute portion of the litter that winds up in streets and waterways.

Environmentalists have long advocated such legislation, saying that plastic bags washing up in rivers and the ocean pose a big threat to marine life, such as sea turtles and birds, according to Zach McCue, citizen coordinator for Clean Ocean Action, a group dedicated to protecting coastal waters.

During the organization’s beach cleanup program, Clean Ocean Action picked up more than 8,000 plastic bags in just two days, McCue noted. “It will dramatically reduce the consumption of plastic bags,’’ he told the committee of its proposed bill.

Others questioned whether the bill addresses only a small portion of the litter problem.

“To me, a ban on plastic bags is just nipping at the edge,’’ said Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), the only member of the committee not to vote to move the measure forward. Instead, she abstained, adding, “I kind of think we are misguided here.’’

Beck noted the amount of plastic bags swept up in the annual beach cleanups by Clean Ocean Action ranked ninth among trash picked up by the organization

Keith Anderson, director of Washington D.C.’s District of the Department of the Environment, offered another view. Since the district imposed its own surcharge on plastic bags, there has been a 60 percent reduction in the number of bags winding up in its waterways, he said.

Anderson said the 5-cents surcharge on customers who still prefer plastic or paper rather than reusable bags has not proved burdensome to the public, but is still high enough to encourage consumers to use recyclable bags. He added that businesses said it has improved their bottom line by requiring them to buy fewer paper and plastic bags.

In Washington D.C., the revenue generated by the 5-cents surcharge brings in about $2.1million a year, money that is used to fund outreach and education programs, inspection of stores to make sure they are complying with the law, and cleanup efforts in local waterways.

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee and sponsor of the bill, said preliminary projections by staff suggest that his bill would generate between $22 million and $28 million a year, money he noted would be used to restore Barnegat Bay.

Industry lobbyists suggested the timing of the legislation is wrong.

“Now isn’t the time to hit residents with a tax,’’ said David Asselin, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry trade organization. He argued that the bill could cost jobs in an industry that employs about 30,000 nationwide and another 700 in New Jersey.

“Taxes on paper and plastic bags can hurt New Jersey’s working class,’’ Asselin said.

But Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, argued that plastic bags often cause huge problems for the environment, clogging storm drains and preventing storm detention basins from functioning properly, a problem that increases flooding.

“We see the legislation as a very common sense approach to change behavior,’’ Tittel said.