TRENTON — Shoppers might start paying extra for paper and plastic bags in New Jersey in a little over a year if a plan endorsed by an Assembly panel Thursday makes it into law.

The bill, A3671, needs at least four additional approvals before it could become law, but it does have bipartisan support. If it passes, it would become law June 1, 2017.

“We are moving in a direction in this state to reduce the pollution that’s going into our rivers, our streams, our oceans and just into our overall environment. This is one way of getting to it,” said Assemblywoman Grace Spencer, D-Essex.

The plan underwent a bunch of changes Thursday:

  • It would also apply to paper bags, not just plastic bags. Single-use compostable paper bags would be charged a fee.
  • The fee would be 5 cents and remain there, rather than rise to 10 cents in 2019 and 15 cents in 2021.
  • Plastic bags won’t be banned starting in 2025, as originally envisioned.
  • Seniors and people with incomes low enough to qualify for nutritional or welfare assistance would be exempt from the fee.
  • Stores would keep 1 cent from the fee on each bag.
  • It would apply to stores that are part of a chain with 10 or more locations nationwide, rather than 20 locations, and any pharmacy, supermarket or store with over 2,000 square feet of retail space.
  • The state law would supersede all local and county ordinances and rules regarding bags.

The last of those changes was key to the bill getting the backing of the New Jersey Food Council, which includes food retailers, convenience stores and suppliers.

The council’s director of public affairs, Gary La Spisa, said the proposal now mirrors a program that has been used in Montgomery County, Maryland, since 2012 that has had an environmental benefit without hurting retailers.

“And as many municipalities consider their own actions on single-use bags, now is the time to implement a statewide standard,” La Spisa said.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, called the proposal “a user fee” and said the bill’s more direct impact will be limiting municipalities from regulating business with a patchwork of rules.

“A lot of the businesses are so afraid that each town is going to have a different policy – similar to what we have now on paid sick leave – that even the business community is joining in to try have some sort of legislation because they’re so afraid of individual municipalities having different rules,” Bramnick said.

New Jersey would be the second state with a statewide standard.

Longport has adopted a 10-cent fee, and Princeton also is considering a fee.

Rocco D’Antonio, president of Organic Diversion, a food and waste composting business in Marlton, said paper bags are more harmful than plastic bags and that it’s important to charge a fee for them, too.

D’Antonio said “the implications are huge” in moving to paper bags because paper has a bigger carbon footprint. A thousand paper bags occupy 5.5 cubic feet of storage and trucking space and weigh almost 124 pounds, while 1,000 plastic bags occupy 0.7 cubic feet of space and weigh around 16 pounds.

Here’s what that means logistically, he said: One pallet in a trailer truck can carry 60,000 plastic bags, while it would take seven pallets to hold as many paper bags. Trailers have 22 pallet spots.

“For the same quantity of bags, you would take up not one pallet spot but one-third of a trailer,” D’Antonio said. “And if you can picture the number of trucks coming down the Turnpike, you’re looking at substantially more trucks coming down to carry this amount of product.”

“You can argue the environmental impact of either one, but at the end of the day you have to transport bags from a manufacturing facility to a distribution center to the store to the checkout,” he said.

Some at the hearing seemed skeptical about D’Antonio’s depiction of paper as worse for the environment than plastic. Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club said “plastic bags are a scourge” in terms of litter, clogging storm drains and killing shore birds and mammals.

Additionally, the revenues collected by the state – after the state keeps 1 percent of the total for overhead costs – would be used to pay for lead remediation programs.

“This is a two-for,” said David Pringle, campaign director for Clean Water Action. “We start handling our solid waste much better by reducing it in the first place, and while we’re in the process of doing that providing some critical funding for a critical need.”

Spencer and other lawmakers had hoped to fund lead programs though a new deposit program for bottles and cans, but that idea doesn’t appear to have much momentum.

“We obviously support the bottle bill and understand that this is a much more viable option, so full steam ahead,” Pringle said.

It’s unclear how much money the bag fee would raise for lead programs. La Spisa said the program in Maryland’s Montgomery County generated $8 million in 2 ½ years.

Five of the six members of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee voted for the proposal Thursday. Assemblyman Scott Rumana, R-Passaic, opposes the fee.

“I don’t agree with adding cost to the consumer. If you’re going to go with a program, we should find a better way to do this,” Rumana said.

“I love using the paper bags for my recycling program in my own home for my newspapers every day and other paper products. It’s a convenient way to get this out to the curb,” Rumana said.

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