TC tables plastic bag ordinance

Committee to amend ordinance to fix inconsistencies and unclear items

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Following a lengthy public comment, the Maplewood Township Committee voted at its March 5 meeting to table an ordinance that would have prohibited the use of single-use plastic bags and regulated the use of single-use paper bags by retail establishments in the township.

Under Ordinance No. 2946-19, as it was presented at the March 5 meeting, as of June 1, all retailers in Maplewood would be prohibited from distributing single-use plastic carryout bags and, as of Aug. 1, all retailers in Maplewood would be required to charge a 5-cent fee to the customer for each single-use paper bag used. There are exemptions; for instance, bags used to wrap a product, such as produce bags in the grocery store, are exempt, as well as newspaper bags, door-hanger bags, dry-cleaning bags and packages containing bags where the bags are the product. Also, all individuals above the age of 65 and/or receiving federal or state welfare benefits are to be provided paper bags free of charge.

The purpose of this is to reduce Maplewood’s carbon footprint. Specifically, as stated in the ordinance, single-use plastic bags are harmful to the environment, poisoning land and waterways, and breaking down to be ingested by animals, which do not fare well once they eat the plastic. Early on in the drafting process, the township had discussed a paper-bag fee that would go to the township; under this ordinance, the proceeds from the fee would remain with the retailer. While single-use paper bags are also harmful to the environment, the ordinance states that they are less so than plastic bags and that the entire point of the ordinance is to encourage people to be more environmentally minded and to bring reusable shopping bags to stores. Part of the ordinance called for retailers to partner with the township to educate residents about the environment and ways of offsetting climate change.

While each member of the committee said they agreed with the sentiment of the ordinance, after hearing several community members speak — including several representatives from Extra Supermarket on Irvington Avenue — they felt there were inconsistencies that needed to be ironed out before the ordinance could be approved. They intend to discuss the issue further and make amendments to the ordinance before approving it.

“I’m not prepared tonight to vote on the ordinance as is. I think that there are legitimate concerns that have been brought up, particularly by the supermarket folks. I think that there are some inconsistencies,” Mayor Vic DeLuca said, adding that the ordinance needs to be a good balance between protecting businesses and protecting the planet. “What we move forward needs to be a little better than what we have here.”

Committeeman Dean Dafis said that, while he would be ready to vote to ban the plastic bags that night, he believed the paper bag component required further analysis.

“These are very, very real concerns,” Dafis said. “We want to do something that is thoughtful and impactful and the best balance of everyone’s concerns as possible.”

Several local business owners and residents asked for clarification on what is banned under the ordinance and what requires a 5-cent fee, saying the current wording was confusing because there are so many types of single-use packaging. For instance, Jessica Marvel, owner of Sprout on Maplewood Avenue, questioned if a small carryout bag from a bakery with, say, a single scone in it would require the 5-cent fee. DeLuca responded that, since that bag would be holding an unwrapped product, it would be exempt from the fee, though he admitted that the ordinance was not clear enough on this and would need to be amended.

Marvel also argued that this ordinance would place undue burden on some retail establishments in towns, as opposed to others, citing that it is unfair that single-use cardboard pizza boxes are exempt. She also explained that many of her customers order their food online and would therefore be unable to opt out of the 5-cent fee.

“Why are retail establishments being required to collect a tax that they don’t really want to collect — at least ours doesn’t — and that find the money that would be collected isn’t even going into an environmental cleanup fund?” Marvel said. “Lastly, I just want to say that the business climate in the village is far from ideal and we’re looking to make things easier for customers. We’re seeing a lot of businesses hurting, a lot of vacancies, a lot of shop turnovers, so we ask that you encourage as much business as possible and not create nuisances and frictions with the customers. They can take their business elsewhere and they will.”

Resident Michele Bessey, who owns Perch Home on Highland Place, also told the committee that the ordinance unfairly targets certain businesses. As the owner of a gift store, she explained that this ordinance does not take impulse purchasing into account and could in fact curb these impulses, which would be bad for businesses like hers.

“I don’t want to appear to not be on the side of the environment and recycling, and of course single-use plastic bags should be eliminated, but there needs to be more consumer education before implementing a change like this,” Bessey said. She discussed different types of reusable bags and why they are not always the best option, from the quality ones being too expensive to be a viable option, to their also making a negative impact on the environment; she cited a statistic that says that tote bags have to be used 327 times to offset the carbon footprint made by their creation.

“It worries me,” Bessey said of the ordinance. “It seems to be applied in a way that isn’t consistent across all businesses.”

Several employees from Extra Supermarket attended the meeting. While each speaker approved of the ordinance’s sentiment to reduce single-use bags, the speakers were concerned that the ordinance would drive customers away and would impinge on customers’ privacy.

“Our clientele for the most part is low-income households and for the most part a good portion are under public assistance. It creates a certain environment for my staff and myself to ask or in some way, I don’t even know how to approach it, ‘Ma’am or sir, are you under public assistance in order to quality for that 5-cent assumption?’” Extra Supermarket administrative staff member Marcos Rodriguez said, adding that it would be extremely uncomfortable for both the cashier and the customer to have to discuss in public whether the customer is receiving public assistance.

Rodriguez then explained to the committee that the cashier does not ordinarily know who is receiving public assistance benefits, as most of these programs, like Electronic Benefits Transfer, gives its participants a credit card that does not broadcast their financial status on it. The cashier would not know until the receipt is printed that this was an EBT customer and by then they would have already charged them the paper bag fee; the cashier would then have to open a new transaction to refund that money, which DeLuca agreed is inefficient.

Rodriguez also suggested the town look more closely at compostable and 100-percent recyclable bags. Along those lines, Extra Supermarket co-owner Albert Mendez told the committee that his store has been working to reduce its carbon footprint in recent years by installing more efficient freezers and cold cases.

“We are willing to put recyclable bins in the store, possibly do a reverse vending machine where we would pay for single-use plastic bags to the customer,” Mendez suggested.

Deputy Mayor Frank McGehee also recommended that perhaps Extra and other retailers in Maplewood could set up a loyalty rewards card to help with some of these issues.

Charles Hall Jr., vice president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Local 108 union located in Maplewood, came to represent the Extra workers.

“Anything that affects their bottom line, affects my members, my workers, everyday people who are just trying to make a living,” Hall said. “There’s an exemption for people on public assistance, but in this state there’s something called the working poor.”

Bergen resident Julio Gonzalez, who works at Extra, questioned whether this ordinance is truly better for the environment.

“I went to search about paper grocery bags and plastic bags and something caught my attention in one of the titles, so I went to search and found many similar. Paper grocery bags require more energy than plastic bags, so that means that we’re leaving a footprint somewhere else where the paper is produced,” Gonzalez said, adding that the Township Committee is “courageous” for considering this ordinance at a “time when the top officer denies the global warming.”

“Are we really going to solve the real problem here? I think the real solution was pointed out earlier: education. We have to educate our community,” Gonzalez said. “The paper bag is not the solution; education is the solution.”

Green Team Chairwoman Tracey Woods agreed that education is vital, telling the committee and audience members that the Green Team recently won prize money and will be using it to launch an education campaign.

“Should the ordinance pass, we are going to be reaching out to all the businesses in town,” Woods said, explaining that the Green Team will distribute signs to be hung in stores and that the Green Team is willing to work with stores to tailor signs to their specific needs. “We’ve also done research on how the behavior change of bringing your own bag works and one of the things that we’ve learned works really well is the raffles where, if you bring a bag, you get to enter that raffle and then you get a gift certificate.”

Woods also said the Green Team would be willing to offer free design help to retailers who want to print custom reusable bags. Similarly, SOMA Action Climate Committee Chairwoman Jennifer Nielsen said SOMA Action and SOMA Justice are ready to support the town in any education initiatives.

Resident Jim Nathanson expressed that, while he agrees with the sentiment of the ordinance, he did not feel this ordinance was the right way to go.

“I don’t think sentiment is really an adequate basis for legislation,” Nathanson said, asking the committee how much research had been done before crafting the ordinance. “On some level I think this is not really a meaningful attempt to solve what’s really a state or national problem; it’s a matter of a statement of sentiment or editorializing or grandstanding on the part of the Township Committee because it doesn’t really do anything to solve the problem.”

Dafis then challenged Nathanson to propose some of his own solutions.

“Do you have any recommendations? Other than charging that this body is putting forth legislation that has not been researched, that is based only on emotion and sentiment?” Dafis asked.

Nathanson responded that he believes this step will only be truly effective if done at the state level.

“To the extent that you can lobby, to the extent that you can get together with other townships, I think that’s far more productive than a single locality trying to do this on its own,” Nathanson said.

Resident Dean Nielsen agreed that this needs to be a statewide initiative, but argued that Maplewood can and should be a bellwether.

“This is meant to be a precursor to a state program,” Dean Nielsen said, adding that it is important to have this issue discussed in other municipalities around the state, such as South Orange, which is also in the process of moving ahead on a similar ordinance. “If we have Maplewood and other progressive cities doing it already, this is a great impetus for the state to have it done statewide.”

Township Committeeman Greg Lembrich said that, while he would love for the state to move ahead on this, he is not going to hold his breath.

“As far as waiting for the state to do something, it’s always an election year for someone,” Lembrich said. “Waiting for the state of New Jersey is a good way of saying we’re never going to do it.”

Despite the sometimes tense back-and-forth at the meeting, the Township Committee was pleased to hear from business owners and stated its intention to take their concerns into account in drafting some amendments to the ordinance.

“I’m happy that no one got up here and said there’s not a climate problem or there’s not an environmental problem. Everybody got up here and said, this is the right way to move to get rid of plastics, and I think that is a credit to all of you, because we don’t have a disagreement there. We want to be eco-friendly, we want to respect the environment,” DeLuca said. “This isn’t about showing off or grandstanding. This is about leadership. Why are we taking this step? Because we tried to take this step a year ago and we pulled back because we thought the state was going to do it, and you’re absolutely right, having a statewide ban and a statewide system would be the best, but the state is not moving and I feel as a local leader, as a local government official, as someone who can control the destiny of our town and make an impact, I have a responsibility to do something here, so I’m not going to wait for the state to take action.”

The ordinance was tabled and will be discussed further at the March 19 committee meeting. The ordinance will likely be amended at the April 2 meeting and another hearing will likely be held at the April 16 meeting, prior to a final vote.