Paper or surcharge?
Change doesn’t come easy.
At least that’s what J.C. Byrnes, an employee at a Ventnor thrift shop, learned after the city enacted a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags in October.
“A lot of people would complain saying, ‘Oh, the town just wants more of your money,’” said Byrnes, who works at The Arc Makes Cents, Too Ventnor. “I think there are some people who are never going to get the concept.”
Three months in, Byrnes says most customers are either bringing totes or carrying items out in their hands. Merchants keep the 5-cent fee and face a $100 fine for violations.
A number of municipalities in Atlantic and Cape May counties have enacted such rules in the past year in hopes of cutting down on the 8 million metric tons of plastic that pollute the world’s oceans annually.
Brigantine, Avalon, Stone Harbor and, most recently, Somers Point, joined the wave, too, but Ventnor and Longport are the only municipalities in the area where the ordinances are in full effect.
There’s a learning curve for both businesses and people, said Beth Kwart, chairwoman of South Jersey’s Surfrider Foundation chapter. The group lobbies local governments to pass environmentally friendly measures.
It’s easy to forget totes at home, and some seasonal residents might be unaware of the rule. Businesses, too, are sometimes unsure how to carry out the ordinances at first.
“It’s a matter of changing old habits,” Kwart said.
After Ventnor’s ordinance went into effect, residents noticed something was amiss: The city’s largest grocer, Acme on Wellington Avenue, was not applying the fee.
Acme spokesman Chris Ellis said the supermarket was waiting for a supply of reusable bags and updates to the store’s pricing system, which led to a delay in fee collections.
The issue made its way to social media but took longer to reach City Hall. And since towns rely partially on residents to report problems, enforcement isn’t foolproof.
“If no one reports it, it’s not likely the city will know,” Kwart said. “The commissioners need to be aware.”
City Administrator Maria Mento said Ventnor only received two calls since October alerting code enforcement of stores not complying.
The city sent out warning letters to four businesses that violated the ordinance, including the Dollar Tree on Wellington Avenue and Rite Aid on Ventnor Avenue.
No stores have been fined.
“When it surfaces someone isn’t charging, our code enforcement calls the store and works it out with them,” Mento said.
In Stafford Township, former Mayor John Spodofora spoke out against how the town’s ShopRite has interpreted a plastic bag ban that went into effect in December.
The grocer is selling 10-cent bags made of a thicker plastic that can be reused, but some contend the heavy-duty bags are resistant to breaking down and increase the plastic problem.
Spodofora said the bulkier bags don’t help solve plastic pollution and are not recyclable or machine washable.
“It was never meant to be this way,” Spodofora told the newspaper The SandPaper last month. “Please do not put them in recycling cans.”
The Somers Point ShopRite on Bethel Road is doing the same. At checkout, customers can buy thicker plastic bags for 10 cents for a limited time as the city gears up for a 5-cent fee starting next week.
Whether the ordinances are working is yet to be seen.
Longport, which enacted a 10-cent bag fee in 2015, saw a decrease in the amount of plastic found on its beaches over the past three years.
There were 186 plastic shopping bags found on Longport’s beaches on one day in 2015, but that number dropped to 26 in 2017, according to Clean Ocean Action, an environmental group that conducts bi-annual cleanups across the state.
But wind patterns, tides and the number of volunteers who sign up also affect the amount of debris picked up.
“(It’s) reassuring to see fewer plastic bags in the environment, whether it’s because of Longport’s ban or not,” said Coastal Watershed Protection Coordinator Alison McCarthy.
Stafford’s newly sworn-in mayor, Gregory Myhre, said it will be hard for towns to gauge whether the fees are impacting the environment. Myhre opposed the ban initially, calling it “government intrusion.”
“The beneficial effects of this ban, if there are any, will be difficult to measure,” he said in a statement.
Still, some want to see a statewide plastic bag ban rather than a confusing patchwork of different rules in every municipality.
In Ventnor, for instance, restaurants are exempt from the ordinance. Cross the border into Longport, and the borough’s two restaurants are included.
Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a bill in July that would have placed a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags, telling lawmakers the measure wasn’t strong enough and calling for a ban.
Supporters praised the move, saying the bill didn’t go far enough. Others contended a fee across New Jersey would ease shoppers into a ban further down the road.
A bill introduced in the legislature in June calls for the prohibition of plastic carry-out bags and single-use plastic straws. It sits in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
“Smaller towns that have passed their own legislation,” Kwart said, “they’re setting an example and showing it can work on a statewide level.”