By Tara Kolton
for Montclair Local
The movement to reduce the use of disposable plastics in the community is gaining momentum.
Last month, the Montclair Environmental Commission (MEC) announced it would be forming a plastics team, with the goal of working together with the Montclair Center Business Improvement District (BID) and the Upper Montclair Business Association (UMBA) to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics by businesses.
“That team will be working with us specifically to canvass the business district,” Israel Cronk, executive director of the Montclair Center BID, told Montclair Local. “Our missions are aligned to make the community better.”
The is goal is to reduce single-use plastics and styrofoam.
“Businesses can ask consumers to use bags other than plastic and even charge for plastic, but it is up to the consumer to be using reusable bags,” said MEC co-chair Lyle Landon.
Montclair’s chapter of Clean Water Action, a national environmental organization, is continuing to expand its active ReThink Disposable campaign in the community, and is working closely with the Montclair Center BID in order to encourage and assist local businesses to adopt more sustainable practices. ReThink Disposable prevents waste before it starts by working with local governments, businesses and institutions, and consumers to minimize single-use, disposable packaging in food service to conserve resources, prevent waste and ocean litter pollution. Disposable food and beverage packaging makes up 67 percent of litter in commercial streets.
“If we don’t end the ‘throw-away’ lifestyle now, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050! This is a huge problem,” according to the ReThink Disposable campaign.
Statewide, New Jersey legislation on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk would discourage the use of single-use carryout plastic bags. The bill, A3267/S2600, as it stands, would establish a five-cent fee on single-use carryout bags provided by certain types of stores to customers and dedicate revenue from the fee to the Healthy Schools and Community Lead Abatement Fund. The bill would require the five-cent fee on single-use bags to be imposed at stores beginning on Oct. 1 at drug stores, supermarkets, chain stores and retail establishments 2,000 square feet or more in size. The fee would be imposed on both plastic and paper carryout bags.
Environmental agencies across the state are advocating for amendments to make the bill more environmentally effective.
Maura Toomey, an organizer with Montclair’s Clean Water Action office, said the organization would like to see banning plastic bags and putting a 10-cent fee on all other single-use bags like paper bags.
“The bill is missing a lot of key components that Clean Water Action and several other organizations working together recommended,” said Toomey. “Some issues are that this bill would preempt any local ordinances, even if those local ordinances are stronger.”
She also said they are concerned with the lack of enforcement in the bill.
“One of the other issues we ran into was that while the funds generated by the fee in this bill are meant for a specific purpose – one-cent for each bag would go to the merchants and the rest of the funds would go to lead abatement programs. But, in an effort to grab the $23 million that would be generated by this fee, the budget language redirected that money to the general fund, so it would not go toward its intended purpose,” she said.
Toomey said as of last week, the budget language about redirecting the funds had been removed.
“Many environmental groups want the monies going to environmental remediation,” said Landon, who also serves as membership & development director at ANJEC (Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions). “Governor Murphy has the opportunity to veto the bill and send it back for more eco-specific provisions.”
Township Sustainability Officer Gray Russell said the stores should provide an incentive for people to bring reusable bags.
“Whether five or 10 cents on both plastic and paper, that’s an incentive for customers to use and remember to bring their bags,” Russell said. “After a while, it will pinch people to be smarter and bring their bags in. We don’t want them to switch from plastic to paper, as that doesn’t solve the problem.”
While paper bags are recyclable and biodegradable, they are more expensive to produce and transport, due to their weight, and as such produce a bigger carbon footprint than plastic.
“There are a few other bills that have been proposed in the legislature and they seem to be much better. We plan to keep an eye on these, make our recommendations, and advocate for a strong bill,” said Toomey.
Breaking free from the bag
Similar to its Straw By Request campaign begun in Montclair last December, ReThink Disposable is starting a bag campaign called, “Break From The Bag.” The straw program includes encouraging restaurants not to give out plastic straws with drinks unless the customer specifically requests one.
“The idea is to start transitioning businesses on a voluntary basis reducing single-use bags. One simple thing businesses can do is always ask before giving a bag,” said Toomey. “We also want to get a town-wide incentive going to encourage reusable bags. We want to make sure the focus is not just on eliminating plastic bags, since paper bags also have an environmental impact.”
While paper bags are recyclable and less toxic than plastic bags, which are only recycled at a rate of one to three percent worldwide, paper bags take 10 percent more energy and four times more water to produce. They are heavier and so take more energy to transport, and are more expensive for businesses, explained Toomey.
“As always, we want to show that sustainable practices also help businesses save money,” said Toomey. “We want all of ReThink Disposable’s initiatives to support local businesses, especially since they are competing with online shopping giants like Amazon that have a huge impact on the environment – from tons of packaging to all the fuel it takes to transport goods all over the world.”
Cronk said the Montclair Center BID is also rewarding local businesses that have taken action to adopt greener practices. A few of the businesses that have recently been recognized by the BID for their efforts are Culture Couture (53 Church St.), Mundo Vegan (20 Church St.), and Bareburger (480 Bloomfield Ave.).
Russell acknowledged that downtown Montclair faces some special challenges, as restaurants and dining “is a huge part of the commerce here.”
“We also can’t ignore that all restaurants are very different. Some do lots of takeout, some it’s not as common,” Russell said. “We should at least be able to require that takeout containers are made of recyclable plastic. We probably can’t get rid of takeout containers entirely as so much is based on it. But there’s no excuse for styrofoam takeout anymore.”
Montclair resident Melina Macall recently created a Facebook group called “Plastic Free Montclair” where community members can keep up-to-date on the township’s efforts, report on what they observe with local businesses making efforts to go greener, as well as they can collaborate on the best ways to make a local impact.
“I really created the forum to provide a space for people who are interested in a plastic-free Montclair to connect, share ideas, opportunities and build community,” Macall said.
Clean Water Action also maintains a presence in the group, with members such as Toomey using the forum to keep residents informed and involved.
“A few people from the group have offered to volunteer with Clean Water Action’s ReThink Disposable program and help reach out to businesses,” said Toomey.
The MEC also wants weigh in from local retailers and consumers, in an effort “to see what our town wants,” said Landon. “And we want the community and citizens to weigh in on a state level.”
Members of the MEC recently attended a spring roundtable discussion of the Essex County Environmental Commission, entitled “Breaking Free from Disposable Plastic” where they discussed how to get communities to make the shift toward reusable bags.
Landon estimated that about 50 percent of residents already have reusable bags in their cars. But getting people to regularly remember to use the bags is the tricky part. A helpful tip is to place the reusable shopping bags on the passenger seat when possible – where they’re more visible.
Often, said Landon, people store their bags in the back of the car and forget to bring them into stores with them. She also recommended that residents stock up on compact, foldable bags (such as the ChicoBag) that are lightweight, and can be easily stored in a purse or even a pocket.
“Citizens will need to bring their own bags, or be prepared to pay per bag,” said Landon. “It can be done. The state ordinance will just accelerate the adoption of this policy, and people and businesses will have to adapt.”
The formation of the plastics team is expected to be a topic of discussion at the next MEC meeting, held Wednesday, July 11.