Plastic bag floating in ocean

Plastic bags floating in the ocean are often ingested by marine life who mistake them for jellyfish.

Steve Jasiecki/Provided

NORTHFIELD — The Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders is considering banning plastic bags at county parks and plans to encourage municipalities to adopt measures aimed at curbing disposable bag use.

At their meeting Tuesday, Feb. 13, the freeholders heard a presentation by Ventnor green team members Monica Coffey, communication manager for the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, and Beth Kwart, chairwoman of the Surfrider Foundation of South Jersey, about their efforts to get shore communities to reduce the number of plastic bags littering the ocean and backbay area.

“There has been an effort to eliminate onetime use plastic bags in our area,” Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica said. “I think it is something this board should be aware of, and take some proactive action to put some effort behind this.”

Coffey and Kwart were part of the Downbeach green teams that convinced Longport to adopt a single-use bag fee ordinance in 2016.

Ventnor will hold a public hearing Feb. 22 on a proposed ordinance that would impose a 5 cent fee at the checkout counter on paper and plastic carryout bags provided by a store. Long Beach Township recently approved a townwide ban on plastic bags.

Eight million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year, and by 2050, there will be as much plastic as fish in the ocean, pound for pound, Coffey said.

The county generates 130 million plastic bags every year, and 2 million a minute are generated worldwide, she said.

The Surfrider Foundation organizes back-bay cleanups several times a year where volunteers pull hundreds of plastic bags from the marsh.

More than 300 ordinances imposing fees or completely banning single-use plastic bags have been passed in municipalities across the country, but European countries are way ahead of the curve on the issue, Coffey said.

“The U.S. likes to think of itself as the best and first and ahead of the curve, but many countries overseas are way beyond us in terms of putting fees and laws in place to limit plastic bags,” she said. “They are convenient, but not essential and very difficult to recycle.”

The ACUA does not accept plastic bags as recyclable material; they go into the landfills. Plastic bags that make their way into the recycling stream pose a danger to workers and clog up the machines that process recycling, she said.

Plastic is not biodegradable; it photodegrades in the ocean into smaller and smaller pieces that are ingested by sea creatures such as plankton at the bottom of the food chain. The fish eat the plankton, and people eat the fish, Coffey said.

Imposing a fee on single-use bags can encourage people to use reusable bags, which are sturdier, last longer and hold more, according to Coffee.

“People are risk adverse and don’t want to pay a fee. If they pay the fee once, the next time they will bring their bag,” she said.

Formica, who owns a bakery in Atlantic City, said the problem is serious and should be addressed countywide, even if the county starts with small actions.

“We definitely want a resolution banning plastic bags in all our county parks,” he said. “The second thing we can do is to get the Atlantic County Council of Mayors to push it as a countywide initiative. It’s easy for anyone who lives on the shorefront to understand the problem, but people offshore need to support it as well.”

A bag fee ordinance could be a partial solution, he said.

“It’s self-disciplining, Formica said. “If you don’t want to pay the fee, bring your own bags.”

Freeholder Amy Gatto said that in addition to retailers collect the 5 cent fee from customers for carry-out bags, she would like to see them give customers who bring their own bags a 5 cent discount.

“They could do that,” Coffey said. “That’s a good idea.”

The freeholders plan to review the Ventnor ordinance over the next two weeks. Formica asked county counsel James Ferguson to draft an ordinance banning plastic in county parks and a resolution encouraging municipalities to adopt their own bag fee ordinance for the next meeting.

“It’s something we’ve got to do,” he said.

Several county residents who attended the meeting said they would support the effort.

“I approve of a fee,” said Regina Bell of Galloway Township. “I use reusable bags all the time and keep them in the front seat of my car.”

Nadine Flynn of Egg Harbor Township said she would not object to paying the fee, but it could be burdensome on others.

“I would pay the fee, because I know I will forget to bring my bags for the first few times. Five cents is nothing to me, but it could be a lot for some people.”

Jerry Griffin of Northfield, who works for the county, said he hates seeing plastic bags littering streets and floating in the ocean.

“My brother and sister have boats, and when we go out into the ocean, we always see bags floating out there,” he said.

Griffin said he thinks 5 cents is too little to charge for a bag.

“Should be 10 cents, like we used to get for soda bottles when we were kids,” he said.

The freeholder board meeting will be held 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27 at the Stillwater Building, 201 Shore Road, Northfield.

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