Clock Is Ticking on Stafford Township’s Plastic Bag Ban

Jul 11, 2018

If New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy doesn’t first put pen to paper on a state-wide fee for plastic and paper bags doled out at supermarkets, pharmacies and large retailers, by this time next week Stafford Township will become the latest municipality to put the kibosh on plastic bags.

But the clock is ticking.

“Time is of the essence,” Mayor John Spodofora said regarding Stafford’s local ordinance 2018-06, which would ban all single-use plastic bags at retailer checkouts and points of sale within the township and allow businesses 120 days to eliminate their plastic bag inventories. “The minute the governor signs the state bill, we’re dead in the water if we haven’t passed our ordinance. And the state bill won’t solve any of the problems.”

In February, the Stafford Township Council introduced the plastic-bag-ban ordinance, but at the time sought to wait several months before adopting it. The intent was to gain feedback from business owners so tweaks to the ordinance could be made, if necessary. Originally, the council targeted July for final approval of the ordinance, but one particular point of issue within the original ordinance likely would have delayed its adoption until at least August, Spodofora said.

The issue had to do with the township’s proposed restriction on plastic bags used for newspaper distribution. One particular distributor, which uses plastic bags to cover a publication that is delivered to residents’ driveways on a weekly basis, had requested more time to come up with an alternative packaging.

Spodofora was willing to wait another month for a solution to arise, but the New Jersey Legislature’s adoption of a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags days before the council’s last meeting on June 26 prompted a quicker response. So instead of waiting, Spodofora had the restriction on plastic packaging for newspapers removed from the original ordinance – several other slight changes to the ordinance were made as well – and the council reintroduced the ordinance.

“Rather than lose out entirely by waiting for that issue to be resolved, it was better to go forward without that restriction for the time being,” Spodofora said. “But we’re still up against the clock with Trenton. I’m hoping the governor takes more time before signing their legislation, or does away with it.”

The bill still in Murphy’s hands – A-3267, which the Assembly passed by a 41-32 vote, and S-2600, which the Senate passed by a 23-16 vote – would impose a 5-cent fee on each paper and plastic single-use bag handed out by supermarkets, pharmacies, chain stores and larger retailers with more than 2,000 square footage of space.

But last week, Murphy reportedly deleted language from the state’s $37.4 billion budget that would have raised millions from the proposed fee. It had been reported that the state would secure some $23 million if the bill were put into effect Oct. 1 – according to the bill’s language, the state would receive 4 cents and the retailers 1 cent for each bag doled out.

Many environmental groups, including the New Jersey Sierra Club, have called the legislation a money grab and a bill that wouldn’t deter the use of plastic bags, while others, including the New Jersey Food Council, which lobbies on behalf of grocery stores and other food retailers, praised the bill as one that would establish uniform regulations throughout the state. However, any municipality with plastic bag restrictions already in place would be grandfathered in and wouldn’t be subject to the new state law.

As of Monday, it was still unclear what Murphy was going to do with the bill, if anything, in the immediate future. He has several more weeks to decide whether to sign the bill, veto it, or return it to the Legislature for modification.

Either way, Spodofora and the council didn’t want to wait around for Murphy to decide Stafford Township’s fate. The council will have its final reading of Ordinance 2018-06 and vote for its passage at its July 17 meeting.

“If we don’t pass this ordinance, our residents are going to suffer with whatever the state does,” he said. “They’re essentially going to be paying a tax to have either plastic or paper bags, and our local stores are going to incur costs to administer that fee system and keep track of every bag going out the door.”

From the outset, Spodofora has said the intent of a plastic-bag ban in Stafford is about protecting the environment – specifically the bay, ocean and other local waterways, where plastics break down and marine life ingests micro- and nano-plastics – and its citizens, who may later eat fish contaminated with such plastic residue littered with toxins.

“We don’t know the long-term effects of plastics breaking down in the environment, but the data so far doesn’t look good,” he said. “And because of that, we have to take responsibility to do what’s right for both the citizens of our town and the environment. This has always been about doing the right thing.”

To clarify, the ban relates only to certain types of plastic bags – those being “carry-out” and single-use bags “for the purpose of transporting products or goods out of the business or store.” It does not include plastic bags used to hold produce, meat, fish or poultry, frozen foods, fresh flowers and deli items; bags used for medical purposes; bags used by pet stores to sell and transport live fish; dry cleaner or door-hanger garment bags; plastic bags sold in packages, such as garbage can or litter box liners; or bags used to deliver food items to customers on food assistance programs.

Of course, following the June 5 primary election, Stafford will have a new mayor and council come January, and they will have to decide whether to keep the plastic bag ban in place. Spodofora said it wouldn’t be surprising if the new administration amends the ordinance or even completely scraps it.

“It definitely is a concern, and I’m hoping whoever comes in continues it,” he said. “I believe it would be a great benefit to the town and our residents to keep it, especially if the Legislature’s fee system goes into effect. Eliminating our ordinance will force the town to go with whatever the state is doing, and that will cost a lot of money for our residents and businesses. The only good answer to getting rid of plastics is to ban their use.”

— David Biggy

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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