Paper or plastic? New Jersey lawmakers could answer that typical checkout question for consumers under a bill that aims to curb plastic-bag use statewide.
If passed, most major retailers, supermarkets, and drugstores would be prohibited from freely giving out nonbiodegradable plastic bags.
Customers who insist on plastic - or paper - would pay 5 cents for every single-use bag beginning in June 2017. Proponents hope consumers, instead, will use reusable carryout bags.
The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D., Essex), is the latest attempt in New Jersey to reduce one-time use of bags. While it includes paper, it's focused on plastic. Similar measures have been pushed but stalled.
"It is important that we find more ways to better address pollution," Spencer said. "As a country, we must begin to recognize that part of the destruction of our planet comes from how we dispose of materials we use in our everyday life."
California is the only state that has imposed a statewide ban on plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Hawaii, every county has adopted a ban.
Across the country, a growing number of major cities and smaller municipalities, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco, have clamped down on plastic-bag use. New York City will impose a 5-cent bag fee beginning Oct. 1.
Experts say the bags wash up in oceans, end up in landfills, clog drains, harm wildlife, and take hundreds of years to break down.
New Jersey's bill recently cleared the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee by a 5-1 vote. It needs a full vote by the Assembly. A Senate version has not been introduced.
Environmentalists are pushing for passage and believe the measure, coupled with a stronger recycling education awareness campaign, would drastically reduce bag use.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said he believed the bill was a step in the right direction but wished it imposed a deadline to phase out bags completely. An earlier version would have banned bags in 10 years and charged 10 cents per bag.
"We have to get rid of them, not just put a fee on them," Tittel said. "We shouldn't really be producing them because of the environmental damage the bags cause."
Each year, Americans use 100 billion plastic shopping bags, and only 5 percent of those are recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The website reuseit.com estimates that American families take home on average 1,500 plastic bags a year. Plastic bags are cheaper than paper bags to produce and have become widely used by retailers in the last two decades.
In Longport, a tiny Shore community south of Atlantic City, residents have embraced a decision to charge a 10-cent fee for carryout bags, Mayor Nick Russo said. Last year, it became the first New Jersey municipality to enact such a ban.
Russo, who sponsored the local measure, said the town of about 800 had about five businesses that are restricted from giving out bags - unless asked and for a fee. The law encourages customers to bring their own bags.
The plastic-bag ban is part of several green initiatives in Longport to protect the ecosystem, Russo said. The borough, which covers just more than a square mile, is surrounded by water on three sides.
"We have to change how we do things," Russo said.
The bill pending in Trenton would prohibit towns like Longport from enforcing their own ordinances. Russo said his town would amend its law to comply with state regulations if the bill becomes law.
Opponents of the bill say the measure would impose the equivalent of another tax and would prove ineffective because many customers would simply pay the fee rather than use recyclable bags.
"Why penalize a business owner?" asked Sal Risalvato, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline, Convenience, and Automotive Association. "Put more into getting people to do more recycling."
Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R., Passaic), who cast the sole dissenting vote against the bill after a committee hearing, agreed.
"If you want to attack the issue of plastic bags polluting the environment, let's find a way to do it without taxing the consumer even more money," Rumana said. "We have a high-enough cost of living in New Jersey as it is."
Three cents of the fee generated from the 5-cent bag charge would be used to create a fund to test public drinking water for lead. The fees would increase in subsequent years.
Retailers and the state Division of Taxation each would get 1 cent apiece per bag for their administrative costs to implement the program.
"You tax one thing and the money goes for something else," said John R. Holub, president of the Retail Merchants Association, which opposes the bill. "It just becomes another funding source."
The legislation would apply mostly to larger chain retailers. Senior citizens and families that receive federal nutrition assistance would be exempt.
Holub said plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable and many retailers provide receptacles for consumers to return their bags. He said consumers should be encouraged to reuse them at home, too, to line trash cans or dispose of animal waste.
"It is about changing behavior," said Spencer, the bill's sponsor. "Why do you need a bag for a package of gum or a bag of potato chips? Eventually people are not going to want to pay the 5 cents."