Board of Trustees passes plastic bag ban on first reading

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange Board of Trustees unanimously passed an ordinance on first reading at its March 25 meeting that will ban plastic bags in the village’s local businesses and charge customers 5 cents for each paper bag they carry out of a business. The decision comes as Maplewood is also discussing a plastic bag ban, and the South Orange ordinance mirrors the Maplewood ordinance for uniformity in the two towns. After a public forum about the ban April 1, the BOT could pass the ordinance on second reading April 8.

According to village Trustee Walter Clarke, the ordinance, originally introduced in January, went through many rounds of edits before going before the BOT at the March 25 meeting. He detailed the exceptions, which include plastic bags for frozen food, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, flowers, potted plants and unwrapped food. The law, if put into effect, would begin six months after the ordinance is passed in order to allow the village time to educate residents and purchase reusable shopping bags to distribute.

“Ideally, at the end of the day no money is ever spent by a shopper on a paper bag,” Clarke said. “None of the money that is collected goes to the government; it all is kept by the retailer.”

In addition to being a deterrent to using single-use paper bags, the fee will go to the retailer to allow the business to recoup the cost of paper bags, which cost more to purchase than plastic bags.

Anna Rulnick, the owner of the clothing store Mod Studio, said at the meeting that she had issues with the ordinance, most notably the fine that will be levied against businesses found not charging for paper bags or handing out plastic bags. She also said she can call paper bags on which she attaches ribbon “gift bags,” an exception to the fee in the ordinance.

“I’m putting more waste into the environment to avoid a $100, $200 or $500 fine,” Rulnick said. “To me that is nonsensical.”

Clarke said that businesses found in violation of the ordinance by the code enforcer, health officer or fire official will be warned before they are fined.

“You’re not just suddenly rapped with a fine,” he said. “You’re given a warning and given time to address that before you are fined.”

Trustee Deborah Davis Ford said she supports the ordinance, but wants to make sure the business owners in the village are comfortable with it as well.

“There is no doubt the reasons for a plastic ban are clear,” she said. “We have a responsibility to the people who come behind us. We’re talking about the survival of the earth, which is the big picture, but we also have to make sure the businesses in South Orange feel that they can survive.”

Residents in the audience at the meeting were in favor of the ordinance moving forward, including Jennie Aylward, who said that plastic emits greenhouse gases that need to be reduced to slow down climate change.

“There’s one estimate that a little greater than 1 percent of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions every year come from plastic production,” Aylward said. “Then a big problem is that a lot of plastic is not properly disposed of and plastic bags are a big offender there.”

Aylward also said that about 4.8 to 12.7 million plastic bags end up in the ocean each year on top of the 150 million metric tons already there.

“That’s a problem not just for wildlife, because plastic particles enter the water supply and the food chain and there was a study that came out last year that found when plastic is exposed to sunlight it emits greenhouse gases itself,” Aylward said. “We have a waste disposal problem, but ordinances like this stop the problem before it starts by discouraging using plastic to begin with.”

Columbia High School sophomore Sophie Paternite talked about the need for eliminating plastic straws as well as plastic bags and urged the BOT to get more creative when enacting the ban, mentioning turning plastic into other reusable everyday items.

“Eliminating means throwing them away, which just contributes to the problem,” Paternite said at the meeting. “The South Orange meeting can be a little more interactive with the practice change.”

South Orange Environmental Commission Chairman Bill Haskins spoke in support of the ordinance at the meeting, saying that the commission worked with the South Orange Village Center Alliance and the BOT to edit the drafts.

“We’ve partnered with SOVCA on three plastic-reduction campaigns over the past 18 months, so we’ve always had a good partnership with the businesses in South Orange when it comes to plastic reduction,” Haskins said. “The reasons to do this are clear. The details of how to get true plastic reduction in our community are tough, and that’s where we need a fee on paper bags so we don’t just go into the next throwaway item when we depart from plastic.”

Village President Sheena Collum said she believes the ordinance can still be improved, but it is important to begin the process now.

“There’s a lot of tweaks that I think can be made, but I agree we have to take action,” Collum said. “We can end up talking about this for quite some time if we choose to, but ultimately we have to start somewhere.”