Committee votes down ordinance to impose disposable bag fee

Photo by Yael Katzwer
Maplewood Township Committee unanimously voted down an ordinance that would have imposed a 10-cent fee on all disposable paper and plastic checkout bags.

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — After approximately an hour of public comment and discussion at its Sept. 4 meeting, the Maplewood Township Committee unanimously voted down an ordinance that would have imposed a fee for each disposable bag used at township retailers.

Ordinance No. 2923-18 was voted down on second reading by all five members of the committee, who agreed that, while the intent of the ordinance — to protect the environment — was good, this ordinance was not the best way to accomplish that goal. Had it passed, the ordinance would have required Maplewood retail establishments to collect a pass-through charge from customers requesting disposable paper and plastic checkout bags; customers would pay 10 cents per bag, with 3 cents going to the retailer and 7 cents to the township. The overall effect of this ordinance was to encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags and to decrease the use of disposable bags in Maplewood.

At the meeting, Mayor Vic DeLuca said one reason he would vote against the ordinance was because the township no longer needs to push its plastic bag legislation ahead of the state. Since the ordinance was passed on first reading, Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a state bill that would have imposed a 5-cent fee on disposable bags.

“We know that Gov. Murphy vetoed the bill and it appears he is supporting the legislation of Sen. Robert Smith from Middlesex County, which is going to ban plastic bags, plastic straws and Styrofoam,” DeLuca said. “Most of the environmental groups were not in favor of the initial bill that was passed and are very happy that Murphy is moving forward with an outright ban of plastic bags.

“I think we ought to think about looking at banning the plastic bags sooner than we had thought since that is coming down. I think we still have to figure out what we want to do about the paper bags,” DeLuca continued, explaining that banning plastic bags without providing some sort of incentive to use reusable bags instead of paper bags just substitutes one disposable product for another.

Several residents spoke out against the ordinance while an equal number spoke in favor of it.

“Environmental leadership requires smart choices as a community and I think they don’t have to be extreme choices but I think laying out an example like this is a great place for Maplewood to take that kind of position and I think we’ve taken this kind of position in a couple of other areas and we stand out in the state for doing so,” resident Matthew Stoloff said at the meeting.

Representing the Maplewood Senior Advisory Committee, Kurt Kiley and India Larrier came out against the ordinance, saying it would impose undue hardship on senior citizens, many of whom are on fixed incomes.

“On behalf of the Senior Advisory Committee, we are coming out against the bag tax,” Kiley said. “It just proportionally impacts seniors, most of which of our senior population is on a fixed income and trying to stretch every penny. Having to pay an additional 10-cents-a-bag fee while trying to shop local disproportionately impacts our seniors.”

Later during the public comment portion of the meeting, Kiley spoke again on his own behalf, arguing that the bag fee would be a hardship for lower-income residents, as well.

“I would just like to reiterate that this is a regressive tax. If you live up on the hill, making a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, you won’t even notice this tax, but if you’re like the bottom 20 percent of the citizens in our town, where your family makes less than $50,000, you’re scraping together pennies and this 10-cents-a-bag tax will have a big impact,” he said.

Resident Jamaine Cripe supported the ordinance wholeheartedly, even bringing in several of the reusable bags she keeps in the trunk of her car to demonstrate how simple it is to carry them around and how easy it is to accrue them, as she said she received many as free giveaways at events.

“I don’t agree that it would be a financial hardship for our seniors or for people who want to shop at certain stores, because too many of us have too many of them in our car and I will happily give them away,” Cripe said.

“The second thing I’d like to point out is that I’m also a person who walks around this town a lot and one of the things I see on a regular basis is plastic bags,” she continued, discussing how she and her daughter have tried to clean up the plastic detritus she sees, but there is simply too much. “I think if I was somebody who actually spent a lot of time walking around with my dog, with my child, who was proud of how green our city is really pushing itself to become and to continue to be, then a plastic bag for 10 cents is not a hardship.”

And resident Tracey Woods pointed out that the 10-cent fee is only for those who do not bring reusable bags.

“Instead of thinking about a fee that everybody has to pay, it’s important to remember you don’t have to pay. You can bring the bags and then it won’t be a hardship,” Woods said. “The data really shows that these types of ordinances really change community habits, so for that reason I support an ordinance of this type.”

A few residents even proposed solutions to help those for whom the fee would be a hardship.

“I do agree with your proposal to charge extra for plastic bags and I do think it is a very crucial step in the process toward Maplewood becoming a greener community, because that’s an issue that, with everything going on in our country right now, a lot of people are kind of pushing that aside, but it is something that is really important to me and that really should be addressed more often and I really don’t think it’s going to be that much of a struggle for people to start bringing reusable bags,” Columbia High School freshman Lily Hawryluk said, suggesting that the community organize a fundraiser to provide reusable bags to those who need them.

CHS senior Bernadette Clawson suggested that it be added to the ordinance that government-subsidized reusable bags will be distributed to seniors and those on food stamps.

A representative from Kings Food Markets in Maplewood also requested that the township not pass the ordinance, arguing that to impose this fee would put Kings at a competitive disadvantage among other retailers.

“All supermarkets and retailers should be able to compete on a similar playing field; this 10-cent fee per disposable bag puts Kings Maplewood at a competitive disadvantage to nearby supermarkets in neighboring towns,” the Kings representative said. “Stores like Whole Foods in Union 1.8 miles away from us, and Ashley’s Market in South Orange 1.6 miles away, will automatically be cheaper for the customers to shop when this is in effect.

“My company operates two stores in the area and many customers cross-shop between our Short Hills location and our Maplewood location. They will not understand why there are differing fees in place,” she continued. “Charging a customer fees for the use of disposable bags will not be popular and the explanation of the ordinance will fall on our employees at the time of checkout. These employees will then need to slow down lines to explain why the fee and also be subject to the customer’s reaction or pushback that will undoubtedly occur. This makes shopping in Maplewood Kings less convenient.”

The representative argued that, as supermarkets are traditionally a business model with a slim profit margin, this fee could severely impact a customer’s decision to shop at the local Kings, thereby harming the business.

“By enacting a pass-through charge for checkout bags in Maplewood, you are putting Kings at a competitive disadvantage,” she said. “At the village visioning session on July 24, it was evident that the residents of Maplewood valued having a market and other retail shops in the center of town. At Kings, we believe this fee will be another reason for shoppers to go elsewhere for their groceries and other retail purchases.”

But Committeewoman Nancy Adams expressed incredulity at the Kings representative’s statements, arguing that Kings already serves high-end shoppers willing to pay more than they would at other area grocery stores like ShopRite.

“It’s not a bargain market. I don’t know that I could see a Kings customer going somewhere else not to pay 10 cents on a bag when they’re not being forced to pay 10 cents on a bag — it’s only when they’re not bringing their own reusable bags,” Adams said, adding that Kings could sell its own reusable bags — which it already does — or just lower some of their product prices, which are already higher than in many surrounding stores. “It’s kind of hard to buy, from my perspective, what you’re saying.”

Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee pointed out that Kings already offers a 4-cent credit to those who bring reusable bags and the Kings representative agreed that this policy is in place to help protect the environment.

When asked by Mayor Vic DeLuca her opinion on the potential plastic ban that may come down from Trenton, the Kings representative said the supermarket would applaud the environmental aspect and would be OK with it because it would affect retailers throughout New Jersey, putting them all on a level playing field. She asked that Maplewood wait to see what Murphy does.

“But the one-offs might convince the state there needs to be a statewide policy,” DeLuca responded. “Part of the problem is that, if we just sit and wait for the state, it may never happen. If we feel a sense of urgency, shouldn’t we do something now? And when the state does their thing, hopefully it will mesh together.”

After hearing everything said in public comment, every member of the Township Committee voted against the ordinance, asking that it be retooled and presented again with certain improvements.

“I think there’s been some suggestion about exempting seniors, 65 and older; we can take a look at that and whether we’re going to entertain any particular types of bags that should be exempted like gift bags or things like that,” DeLuca said, adding that they should just have the fee go to the retailer to avoid it being called a “tax.” “I think that needs to be discussed. It’s clear to me that what we initially posed needs some revisions. I would not be in favor of passing what we have here tonight. I would be in favor of going back with the parameters that I outlined here tonight of banning the plastic bags, figuring out some kind of charge for the paper bags — I don’t think it’s 10 cents — and I’d let the retailer keep it, exempting the seniors and figuring out what we are going to do about these special bags.”

McGehee said that, while he approves of the reasoning behind the ordinance, he worries about the impact it will have on seniors.

“I also have a deep concern about the fee for seniors,” McGehee said, suggesting that Maplewood work with SOMA Two Towns for All Ages so that the Classic Card — a card seniors in Maplewood and South Orange can present to select retailers to receive discounts — can be used to negate the disposable bag fee. “I think this was an educational process and we need to continue to educate our residents as well as our merchants. We’re trying to also deal with the fact that, on a recycling perspective, there are some recyclables, 3 through 7, that we talked about we’re not collecting anymore, so there’s a lot happening right now for residents to digest. …  I think we have some time to catch our breath and step back and start to educate our residents about this process.”

Committeeman Greg Lembrich agreed with his fellow committee members that the ordinance needs work, but is a good starting point and discussion item.

“I really like our intentions here. I think our plan, our proposal, needs a little bit of revision as has been pointed out tonight and discussed in a few areas. I like the direction where we’re going. I like Maplewood being a leader in environmental issues. I don’t necessarily think we have to wait for the state, but I think we need to wait until we have it right and I don’t think we have it right yet,” Lembrich said.

Adams said several times that, while she likes the ordinance, she agrees it needs to be “tightened up,” especially to assist seniors and lower-income residents.

“I understand the plight of the seniors,” she said. “Everyone’s got their own issues, but the reality is that our environment is suffering and suffering badly and it’s because of our sort of willingness to take the easy way out, not bring bags, not use reusable bottles. Our younger generations and our kids need to count on the Earth being there for them.”

Committeeman Dean Dafis said that, plain and simple, this ordinance was a starting point, but was not ready to be passed.

“This ordinance as it stands is not good, sound public policy. It’s not sound public policy because we have admitted that it needs work, so we’re not going to pass a law that we admit at the time of passage needs work,” he said. “When we first discussed this a few months back, I was never in favor of a pass-through fee. A pass-through fee that is collected by the township eventually is a tax. It is regressive. It is a tariff on doing business in Maplewood, and we certainly do not need another tax in Maplewood and we certainly do not want to make doing business in Maplewood harder.

“Yes, we need to change consumer behavior and the best way to do that is to ban the plastic — an outright ban from the beginning — coupled with a fulsome educational effort and campaign to promote reusable bags,” he added.