What could become nation’s toughest ban on plastic bags wins key vote

New Jersey had been heading toward outlawing carryout bags until coronavirus hit. Lawmakers approved it with reservations
Credit: (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
File photo

A long-debated bill to adopt what advocates describe as the nation’s most comprehensive ban of single-use carryout plastic and paper bags, as well as other plastics, cleared a legislative committee in a vote Thursday.

The measure, a top legislative priority for most New Jersey environmental organizations for the past few years, cleared the Senate in early March, but stalled when the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the state less than two weeks later. On Thursday, the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved the measure with amendments, sending it along for a full vote. The Senate would also need to approve this version before it could be signed by Gov. Phil Murphy.

The legislation initially was hard-fought by many business interests. But the wide support for banning single-use plastic bags both across the country and among many communities has diminished some opposition partly due to the proliferation of communities adopting their own, often different, kinds of bans. Those opponents would prefer a single statewide law, rather than a mishmash of local laws.

Banning the bag

The New Jersey Food Council, a foe of earlier versions of the bill, now backs a total ban on both single-use plastic and paper bags, said Linda Doherty, president and CEO, although the group will seek a small technical amendment by the committee. The amendment is expected to be adopted, a change that will mean the bill, if approved by the Assembly, will have to go back to the Senate for concurrence.

In New Jersey, more than 130 municipalities have adopted bans, according to Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions. At least eight states, beginning with California in 2014, have adopted statewide bans, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We think this is the right move at the right time,’’ Coffey said, “It demonstrates people understand this issue and they want action from their legislators.’’

Amending Assembly bill

The Assembly Appropriations Committee considered two versions of the bill. Proponents had hoped lawmakers would amend the Assembly version (A-1978) to match the Senate bill (S-864), which they view as the stronger step to reducing mounting plastic pollution, particularly in waterways and the ocean.

Besides banning single-use carryout plastic and paper bags, the Senate bill also would ban polystyrene foam food-service products and limit single-use plastic straws.

The ban on polystyrene is opposed by the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, which contends foam containers are safer than alternatives, can be recycled and are cheaper.

“I don’t know why we are doing this,’’ said Dennis Hart, executive director of the council, noting roughly 25% of restaurants are projected, by some estimates, not to survive restrictions imposed by the pandemic. “Then you get these tremendous costs added on, I don’t get it.’’

Ban won’t come cheap

In a fiscal note released by the Office of Legislative Services last week, the ban would impose additional costs on both local and state governments, primarily by banning polystyrene-foam food containers at food-service businesses, school cafeterias, hospitals and prisons.

For example, the state Department of Corrections could incur roughly $1.3 million in annual expenses in switching to alternatives, according to the OLS fiscal estimate.

“There is an urgency to get plastic legislation passed in New Jersey,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the state’s Sierra Club chapter. “Every day we wait, it gets worse.’’

Advocates hope the bill lands on the governor’s desk by the end of the month.