for Montclair Local

Montclair failed to pass a single-use plastic bags ban Tuesday night, July 23.

In a tense public hearing, the Montclair Mayor and Council unanimously voted to table the ordinance after listening to a round of merchants in attendance. 

Although the business owners noted that they support a ban, they took issue with a host of details. Merchants need time to use their existing inventory of bags, they said. And they do not want to charge customers 10-25 cents for paper, indicate the charge on receipts and have to produce those receipts for the municipality, and noted that the definition of what constitutes reusable bags is too restrictive, as many use small plastic and paper bags with company branding. Although intended to make consumers switch to reusables, the ban would also require that merchants do not charge individuals for paper if they receive government financial assistance, prompting merchants to question the legality of asking customers for such sensitive information. 

Some criticized the Montclair Environmental Commission (MEC) which pushed for the ban, modeled after bans in Hoboken and Jersey City.  

Business owner Scott Kennedy called the ordinance “onerous,” and questioned the MEC’s influence on the town government. “We didn’t elect the Montclair Environmental Commission [to set policy], we elected you. It’s disingenuous to sneak through a ban in June or July,” Kennedy said. 

He also questioned the former Business Improvement District’s director’s effectiveness in getting out information on a proposed ban. “The BID director said she sent emails and three responded, 200 opened the email, and so it was assumed that they were good with it. Hundreds of small businesses are carrying the freight of this ordinance. Stop it in its tracks and let them tailor it for us,” Kennedy said.

Deputy Mayor Sean Spiller said the BID supports a ban and noted that the draft ordinance can be clarified to include grace periods in consideration of merchants’ inventory of single-use bags in stock and ordered as well as other details. “You have to provide reusables in order to change behavior. I don’t think it’s unreasonable,” Spiller said regarding the fees.

The ordinance states that if a customer does not bring their own reusable bags, reusable bags must be provided by the retailer for a fee of 10-25 cents. 

Some businesses are concerned with some of the requirements listed in the ordinance.
Some businesses are concerned with some of the requirements listed in the ordinance.

The draft ordinance defines reusable bags as follows: paper bags that display the words “recyclable” and/or “reusable”; bags made of cloth or washable fabric, with handles designed for multiple reuse, can be used 125 times and carry a minimum of 22 pounds; and plastic bags that are at least 2.25 Mil thick. The ban does not apply to laundry bags, produce or product bags, package bulk items, fruits, nuts, grains, candles, or small hardware items, wrap flowers, potted plants, unwrapped prepared foods, bakery goods, and pharmacy prescription bags. Retailers can apply for an exemption for $100. 

Montclair Antiques owner Jerry Gaskins asked the council how many of them own a brick and mortar store, adding that small businesses are operating on razor thin profit margins and competing with online stores. “I don’t have a problem with plastic bags being eliminated. We need to talk about this before you’re going to be able to come in and look at my receipts. I don’t think that’s legal. If you want to get rid of plastic bags, that’s okay, but I have a problem with charging 10-25 cents a bag,” Gaskins said. 

The Upper Montclair Business Association supports a ban, said member Holly Felber, the owner of a women’s clothing and accessories boutique, adding that most members do not use single-use plastic bags. She noted that the ordinance unfairly groups large retailers with small businesses. 

A Frederic’s Fine Jewelers representative told the council asking customers if they are on public assistance would create a privacy issue and that it would be unreasonable to put a gift of jewelry into a large reusable bag as opposed to small gift bags the store had been using.

Another merchant noted that their gift bags with tissue paper were part of their packaging and branding.

MEC co-chair Lyle Landon said waiting for a state ban would be a detriment to the retailers. “If you put the ban in place now, retailers can collect the money [from the 10-25 cent fee for paper]. If the state [enacts a ban], it will collect the fees. We want to help our retailers and pass a municipal ban so their expense [for paper] will go away,” Landon said.

Mayor Robert Jackson said, “It’s fair to say all of us want to get this done as soon as possible, but we’re sympathetic and understand your concerns. It’s not us versus them.” 

Around 30 municipalities, mostly beach communities, ban single-use plastics, noted Zack Karvelas of Clean Ocean Action at a June meeting. Hoboken and Jersey City are among the North Jersey communities to pass ordinances. “Use a plastic bag for 30 minutes. It stays out there for 400 years,” Karvelas said. "A fee on paper decreases single use. This is what we need to see, where we need to head and continue to walk the path of sustainability for future generations.”