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

VENTNOR — The Board of Commissioners introduced an ordinance Thursday, Feb. 8 that would require stores to charge a fee for single-use bags provided at the checkout counter — whether paper, disposable plastic or reusable plastic of a slightly thicker millage.

Ventnor’s action caught the eye of Atlantic County Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica, who said he would like to see a countywide effort to ban plastic bags.

If the measure passes, Ventnor would be the second Atlantic County municipality to tackle the issue. Longport approved a bag fee in 2016, and was the first municipality in New Jersey to do so.

Surfrider Foundation South Jersey Chapter Chairwoman Beth Kwart said 293 bag ordinances have been approved across the United States.

“It’s great to see Ventnor blazing the trail for Atlantic County,” she said.

The ordinance would create Chapter 189 of the municipal code, “Single-Use Bag Regulations,” which would require "covered stores" to impose a “carry-out bag fee” of not less than 5 cents on each bag. The fee is retained by the store.

Covered stores are defined as any general vendor, retail or wholesale establishment that sells personal, consumer household goods including but not limited to supermarkets, convenience stores, drug stores and liquor stores. It does not apply to restaurants with dine-in facilities.

Bags for fresh meat, seafood and prescription medication are exempt.

The proposed ordinance would go into effect Oct. 1. 

Shoppers on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, programs are exempt.

Proponents of the ordinance are hoping charging a fee will encourage more people to bring their own reusable bags to the store.

Under the ordinance stores that fail to comply will first be issued a warning, and face a $100 fine for subsequent violations.

The director of the Public Works Department would be charged with enforcing the ordinance, and the zoning officer and police department would issue summonses or warnings to store owners for violations.

Monica Coffey, who chairs Sustainble Margate and is a member of Go Green Ventnor, said the green team is applying for a $10,000 grant to purchase bags for distribution to the community and to purchase signage for business owners.

Coffey said that when Formica heard about the legislation, he called her to offer support.

“He asked if I would speak at the freeholder meeting on Tuesday. His hope is that we could take it countywide and get all the towns to follow your lead,” Coffey told the commissioners.

Kwart said it has been four years since the organization started educating the public about the dangers of plastic bags, which often wind up in the ocean posing a danger to marine life.

“This is the perfect next step to doing that,” Kwart said.

Formica said he attended the very first meeting of the plastic bag education campaign that was held at Steve & Cookie's by the Bay.

“That made me aware of the environmental hazards of plastic bags,” he said in a telephone interview Friday afternoon. “We always tout being green in Atlantic County, and the ACUA is always winning awards for its efforts to protect the environment.”

Formica said that with the current makeup of the freeholder board, this is the year to start a countywide effort to address what he believes is a real hazard to the bays and ocean.

“This year, the board tends to be more proactive on the environment,” he said.

He said he would propose a resolution urging all Atlantic County municipalities to get on board.

“This is an opportunity to educate everyone,” he said. “I’m hoping once the facts are brought out, people will support it.”

Although 5 cents doesn’t sound like a lot of money, it can make a big impact on the problem, Kwart said.

Washington, D.C., conducted a survey four years after it imposed a bag fee that showed the average household cut  plastic bag usage from 10 bags a week to four, she said. The survey also showed that 50 percent of businesses said they were saving money because they didn’t have to buy as many bags for customers and because they were keeping a portion of the bag charge.

“Only 16 percent of residents and 8 percent of businesses expressed concern about the law within four years of passing," Kwart said. "Hopefully, we will see similar numbers to what D.C. saw."

Commissioner Lance Landgraf thanked Downbeach green team volunteers for “keeping our feet to the fire.”

Kwart said some big-box retailers in other states were trying to skirt the fee by distributing bags that are thicker than 2.25 mil and calling them reusable bags, although few people actually reuse them.

“We’re trying to close the loopholes,” she said.

Bayfront resident Paul Gigerich, a former lifeguard, scuba diver and sailor, said he was moved when he attended the Surfrider Foundation’s showing of the documentary “A Plastic Ocean,” which shows gyres of plastic floating in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and plastic contained in the stomachs of marine life who died of starvation after ingesting too much plastic.

“I want to see the water clean and protected. I see trash flow by my house. Plastic bags are an easy item to do without,” he said.

Resident Mary Leningham, who is a member of Go Green Ventnor, said she was happy to see the ordinance finally introduced.

“I’m a teacher and I teach my students the importance of not using things that they are going throw away 30 seconds later. I’m looking forward to seeing a cleaner Ventnor,” she said.

If the ordinance passes, the green team will conduct a six-month citywide education campaign and flood the community with free reusable bags.

A public hearing on the ordinance will be held 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22 at Ventnor City Hall. The freeholder meeting will be held 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13 at the Stillwater Building in Northfield.

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