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N.J. throwaway-bag bill advances

TRENTON - A bill that takes an incentive-based approach to reducing the use of throwaway plastic and paper bags advanced Monday in the legislature.

TRENTON - A bill that takes an incentive-based approach to reducing the use of throwaway plastic and paper bags advanced Monday in the legislature.

The measure approved by the Senate Environmental Committee requires retailers to give customers a five-cent rebate for each reusable shopping bag they use and charge them five cents for each single-use bag they take.

A similar law adopted in the District of Columbia nearly three years ago reduced the number of plastic bags ending up in the Anacostia River by 60 percent and caused three-quarters of residents to cut their use of disposable bags, according to a follow-up survey.

"By charging a nominal five-cent fee for each paper and plastic bag, customers become incentivized to either forgo a bag or bring a reusable bag rather than pay the five-cent fee," said Keith Anderson, interim director of the district's Department of the Environment, who came to Trenton to testify about the bill.

Anderson said the district's 2009 bag law requires 4,300 food and liquor stores to charge customers five cents per disposable plastic or paper bag, generating $2.1 million a year for river cleanup. Merchants keep up to two cents if they offer an environmentally friendly alternative.

Random inspections are conducted by secret shoppers, he said, and violators can be reported via a tip line. Warnings are issued for first offenses but fines for continued noncompliance can reach $500. Most businesses are not troubled by the law, he said, because it has enabled them to order fewer bags, helping their bottom lines.

Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), who chairs the environmental panel and is sponsoring the bill, said New Jersey could look forward to $28 million in revenue from the law, which could be dedicated to helping regenerate Barnegat Bay. The bay, which has deteriorated because of overdevelopment and storm water runoff, was battered further by Hurricane Sandy.

Several other countries, including China, have banned plastic bags or instituted fees for single-use bags. In the United States, nearly 100 communities or cities have passed laws limiting throwaway bag use, led by San Francisco, which passed a disposable bag ban in 2007.

Zach McCue of Clean Ocean Action, a coalition of more than 130 environmental organizations in New Jersey and New York, said the manufacture of thin-film plastic bags consumes millions of trees and barrels of oil, takes up space in landfills for a long time, and is harmful to marine life, especially birds and sea turtles that ingest the bags, or pieces of bags, or get entangled in them.

A representative of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a group of bag manufacturers, said the ban amounts to a tax on businesses and would hurt some of the 30,000 people who work in American bag-making factories.

He said bag laws had not been shown to reduce the number of plastic bags recovered from waterways.

The bill was amended before the hearing to reduce the charge from 15 cents per nonbiodegradable bag and remove a provision that would have required large retailers to reduce the number of plastic and paper bags they distributed by 75 percent.

The bill was approved by 4-0 with one abstention. Three Democrats and one Republican voted for it. Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck of Monmouth County abstained.

This was its first legislative hearing. A similar bill stalled in the previous legislative session.