Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes recently stood in a Washington , D.C., pharmacy self-checkout line, watching people dutifully pay for their plastic bags.
"It was exciting to see that in an honor system what people were doing," said Hughes. So he's decided to try to transport the idea to Central New Jersey.
After talking with environmentalists, Hughes said it didn't make sense to keep throwing plastic bags in the landfill anymore.
"Every day we're throwing plastic bags into a landfill that we're paying for to have them taken away," said Hughes.
He suggested that a measure to charge customers 5 cents per plastic bag be put to a countywide vote on the November ballot.
County officials will decide whether to include it this week. If it makes the ballot, and then passes, Mercer County will become the first in New Jersey to pass such a policy.
"In my humble opinion, I believe they will be historic," said Noemi de la Puente, who founded New Jersey Think Outside the Bag, which supports plastic bag charges. "I believe they will pave the way for the rest of the state."
Hughes and de la Puente met at a Pennington Day community event, where de la Puente had a display of 500 plastic grocery bags -– she said that's the accepted national average for how many bags an individual goes through annually.
"When you see all the 500 bags at once, you're kind of disgusted. Iit's a little overwhelming," said de la Puente.
For the past two years, she has struggled to get the attention of the state Legislature to pass any law encouraging decreased bag use.
She said previous bills have not been crafted well enough to appeal to the entire state, but also that powerful special interests such as the plastics industry have the ears of politicians.
"The plastic bag industry is a huge industry, there are millions of dollars made every year because stores are caught in the middle of this American convention that one must receive a complimentary bag with every purchase," said de la Puenta. "The plastics industry doesn't want to see that dry up."
De la Puente said some grocers actually lower their overhead costs and avoid charging customers hidden bag fees by eliminating them altogether.
Think Outside the Bag recently decided to focus on bag fees at a more local level.
"The township level was too small because pissed-off customers will drive 10 minutes up the road to avoid the bag charge," she said. "But they will not drive across the county."
She's happy to have Hughes on board with her.
Hughes said he's been told that, technically, counties can't really implement this type of law without legislative support.
"Well I'm going to hopefully try and test that assumption and see who tries to stop me," said Hughes. "I think counties should have a right to do positive things for the county."
"I think it makes sense all around," added Hughes. "The one thing that would not make sense is someone in the bureaucracy telling the county they can't do it."