Plastic vs. Paper: NJ Legislature Readies to Tackle Battle of the Bags

Tom Johnson | August 15, 2012 | Energy & Environment
With seven bills pending, advocates press for ban and fees on plastic grocery bags

When you go into a supermarket, you are usually given a choice: Paper or plastic bags to cart your groceries home, unless you are carrying in your own reusable grocery bag.

In some states, the choice you make could cost you a few pennies more, including in New Jersey if bills pending in the Legislature are enacted into law. What decision you make, however, is subject to a lot of debate as whether which one is better for the environment.

In what may be shaping up as a big battle in the fall legislative session, environmental groups and clean ocean advocates are pushing lawmakers to either ban single-use plastic bags or impose a fee on consumers who choose to opt for that choice.

The issue emerged as a battleground during a hearing this week on the decline of Barnegat Bay, which among a host of other problems lists plastic bags clogging stormwater basins as among the causes of rising pollution into the waterway.

“They clog up storm drains so they don’t function,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Beyond that, other conservationists argue plastic bags and other plastics are a big source of debris in the world’s oceans, posing huge dangers to marine life and sea birds.

John Weber, northeast regional manager with the Surfrider Foundation, said the U.N estimated that 100,000 marine mammals and up to 1 million seabirds die each year from ingesting or becoming tangled in plastics in all their forms, not just plastic bags.

“Bans and fees work,” Weber said. “Bag usage drops significantly whenever either is passed. In Washington, D.C., a 5-cent fee curtailed plastic bag use by 60 percent within weeks. This not only reduces unsightly litter, it can also reduce the lethal impact on wildlife.”

Representatives of the plastics manufacturing industry disputed that view, telling legislators in Lavalette on Monday plastic bags are more environmentally friendly than paper bags.

“Paper bags have a lot larger carbon footprint than plastic bags,” said Donna Dempsey, a spokesperson for the American Progressive Bag Alliance.

The American Chemistry Council supports that view. Using paper bags doubles the amount of carbon dioxide produced versus plastic bags; plastic bag production uses less than 4 percent of the water needed to make paper bags; and using paper bags creates almost five times the amount of solid waste than using plastic bags, according to the industry group’s website.

Nonetheless, numerous jurisdictions have enacted bans on plastic bags, including Washington, D.C. and 50 other jurisdictions in California, according to a memo from the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services prepared for the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

No state has enacted a statewide ban, fee, or tax on plastic carryout bags, although legislation to do is pending in a number of states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In New Jersey, there are currently seven bills pending in the Legislature concerning recycling or phasing out non-composable single-use plastic bags and offering reusable bags for purchase. Industry lobbyists dispute the allegation that most plastic bags are resigned to a single use, saying many consumers use them several times.

Industry and business lobbyists argued the sector is making strides to recycling plastic bags and instead of banning their use, the state should ramp up education efforts about the need to recycle.

The effort to ban plastic bags also could have an economic impact on New Jersey, Dempsey said, since there are 16 facilities plastic manufacturing facilities in the state, employing more than 700 people.

Barbara McConnell, vice chair of the New Jersey Clean Communities Council, noted the state already has a tax on littering generating products. “We think the industry is doing a great job on recycling,” she said.

No matter how good a job the industry is doing, Michael Egenton, a vice president of the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce said a ban on plastic bags would not work unless you can change human behavior.