By Maddy Vitale
Somers Point Councilman and Harbormaster Ron Meischker looked out over the bay at Kennedy Park on Friday and reflected on the new plastic bag fee being imposed on customers at local stores.
On June 29, City Council took a strong stance on litter and adopted an ordinance that charges a 5-cent fee on each single-use plastic bag at food stores and retail chains operating in Somers Point. Restaurants are exempt.
“With water forming the borders of Somers Point on three sides, the goal here is the reduction of the use of single-use bags because they are a hazard in marine environments,” Meischker said. “Studies have shown that single-use plastic bags have been reduced by up to 85 percent in cities where a 5-cent fee has been implemented.”
The ordinance gave businesses six months before the fee would begin. On Jan. 7, the ordinance went into effect. The money collected by the individual stores would be used as they wish.
So far, most of the stores in the community are being very good partners with the city and are imposing the fee on anyone who needs plastic bags, Meischker said.
ShopRite in Somers Point and Santori’s Produce & Deli have been excellent business partners with the city in this endeavor, he noted.
“ShopRite is putting forth a great effort,” Meischker said. “ShopRite is really being a good corporate citizen.”
Bill Sumas, chairman of Village Supermarket, the operator of ShopRites in New Jersey, including the Somers Point location, said he is pleased with the partnership.
“Our ultimate goal is to not have single-use bags and have reusable ones for shoppers. By being partners with the town, this is a great beginning for a wonderful ending,” he said. “This is for the environment and the greater good.”
Sumas noted that ShopRite is still working out where the revenue collected from the bag fee will go, but it will have something to do with the good of the environment.
All of the money Santori’s is collecting from the fees are going to the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, Meischker said.
Not all of the stores are cooperating with the new ordinance.
Meischker walked in to purchase a soft drink and candy at one local store and was handed a plastic bag.
“I said, ‘Aren’t you going to charge me a fee?'” he recalled.
The cashier told Meischker, “No. We don’t have to do that.”
Meischker said the business was cited.
Meischker hopes working with the area businesses and educating the community will reduce the single-use plastic bag litter.
Data from Clean Ocean Action’s annual beach sweeps support the need to deter the public from using plastic bags. The reports, which are used to study debris trends over time, have found plastic shopping bags consistently rank in the “dirty dozen” for the top 12 litter items picked up during the bi-annual beach cleanups throughout New Jersey.
The city and the Patcong Creek Foundation, a local environmental group headed by Meischker, do cleanups and every one inevitably turns up many plastic bags strewn in the marshlands, waterways and roads.
The ultimate goal, Meischker explained, is not to have businesses collect fees, it is to change the mindset of some members of the public. He hopes it will show them how reusable bags are better for the environment and just as convenient as taking a plastic bag.
“The idea is to deter people from paying the fees,” he said. “The average shopper takes about 50 trips a year to the food store. Think about all of the plastic bags that will be taken out of the litter stream if people use reusable bags.”
Joe Hayburn, a Somers Point resident and member of the Surfrider Foundation Jersey Shore chapter, attended a City Council meeting Thursday night. He wanted to hear about how the ordinance was going.
Hayburn spoke out against balloon releases last year in Ocean City because of potential harm to marine life. He said the plastic bag ordinance was also very important because the bags can be harmful to marine life.
He added that it should have been instituted a long time ago in all communities, but that he welcomes its adoption in Somers Point.
For Meischker, an avid crabber and fisherman, who organizes the Assault on Patcong Creek every year, which is said to be the largest crabbing tournament in the country, water is a large part of his life.
“I’m on the water from March to November. I see plastic bags in the water day in and day out,” he explained. “Out of everything we find out there, it is the only thing we really actually can control.”