Will New Jersey Ban the Bag — or Impose 5-Cent Fee on Each One?

One piece of legislation would phase out plastic bags entirely, while another would charge consumers a nickel — with the money going toward lead abatement

plastic bags
California did it four years ago. Hawaii has a de facto ban. And last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags by next year.

Will New Jersey follow suit? At least one legislator thinks it should. Assemblyman John McKeon, an environmental advocate from Essex County, introduced a bill (A-4040) last week proposing a ban to phase out noncombustible plastic carry-out bags three years after enactment.

It is no small problem. Each year, Americans use 380 billion plastic bags, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Last year, in a beach cleanup by Clean Ocean Action, more than 80 percent of the haul was some kind of plastic. Some towns along the Jersey Shore are already banning plastic bags or imposing fees on their use.

“The ecological damage being done by the bags that we all use just bares the irresponsibility of all of us,’’ McKeon said of the source of litter that fills landfills, despoils waterways, and threatens marine life.

The idea of a ban is backed by many environmentalists, but so far only two states have prohibited the use of plastic bags — although several major cities have adopted bans, including San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston. McKeon’s latest bill is an updated version of a measure that has been kicking around the Legislature for years.

In New Jersey, the debate over an outright ban on plastic bags may come down to whether a better approach might be to impose a 5-cent fee on single-use carry out bags as proposed by a bill (A-3267) sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-Bergen).

That bill is backed by the New Jersey Food Council, which views it as a sound approach to dealing with the issue, according to Linda Doherty, its president.

‘Unworkable patchwork’ of rules

“The challenge we are facing at the moment is the unworkable patchwork of definitions and provisions from town to town that becomes confusing, costly, and unfair to both retailers and customers,’’ Doherty wrote in an email.

McKeon, who is a co-sponsor of the fee bill, said there are pros and cons with both approaches. “I don’t like the nickel approach because it is a little bit regressive,’’ he said.

Doherty argued the experience in other states has shown that a fee for both paper and plastic bags is critical to the overall success of any bag proposal and motivates participation.

Under the fee proposal, one cent would go to the store operator and the other four cents would go to a special fund for lead abatement, although the state could divert up to one percent of those revenues to administer the fund.

Some environmentalists do not like the fee proposal, because it still would keep plastic bags around, rather than eventually banning their use. “They’ve become a real scourge on the environment,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, agreed. “There’s a growing realization that plastic bags are a blight on the environment,’’ he said. “We should be working to eliminate them.’’