What’s next for NJ’s sweeping plastic bag ban?

Bill gets a vote, but it calls for eliminating paper bags and more. Even supporters say they might back away
Credit: Great Beyond via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA
Approval by a key Assembly committee Thursday was seen as a victory by environmental advocates, but it might be short-lived.

A key committee approved a bill to ban single-use carryout plastic and paper bags, as well as other plastics, but now even some of its supporters acknowledged their backing could end without major changes in the legislation.

The measure, a top legislative priority of most New Jersey environmental organizations for the past few years, won approval Thursday from the Assembly Appropriations Committee — seen as a victory by environmental advocates who have pushed for the legislation for the past few years.

The victory might be short-lived, however,  given that there seemed to be widespread opposition from both Republicans and Democrats over a provision in the bill to ban single-use paper bags, as well as polystyrene-foam food containers.

The legislation (A-1978) was amended and merged with a Senate version (S-864), a step that means, if approved by the full Assembly, it needs to go back to the Senate for concurrence.

Bill not in the bag

Proponents seemed to recognize there is still a lot of work to do.

“It’s the strongest bill in the country, but it’s not going to happen overnight,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “It’s a big step forward, but there’s a lot of work to do.’’

The legislation initially was vehemently opposed by many business interests, but the wide support for banning single-use plastic bags both nationwide and among many communities had diminished some opposition partly due to the proliferation of cities and towns adopting their own, often different, kinds of bans. Businesses prefer a single statewide law, rather than a mishmash of different local laws.

From foe to friend of bill

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 won 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.’’

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

Paper ban draws critics

The ban on single-use paper bags, the first such prohibition in the country, stirred the most opposition in committee, followed by the ban on polystyrene foam food-service containers.

“Paper bags don’t belong in this bill,’’ said Matt Wells, a senior regional manager at Westrock Co., a manufacturer of paper and packaging products, who called the ban a fundamentally flawed public policy.

Others from the paper industry agreed. “This is not what the public wants,’’ said Abigail Sztein of the American Forest and Paper Association.

The ban on polystyrene is opposed by the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, which contends the 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. He said polystyrene uses less water than alternatives, uses less energy and is recyclable. Roughly 25% of restaurants, according to some projections, will not survive restrictions imposed by the pandemic. “Then you get these tremendous costs added on, I don’t get it.’’

But Cindy Zipf of Clean Ocean Action said plastic pollution represents a huge part of marine pollution; plastics in the ocean harm millions of forms of marine life.

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 from the ban on polystyrene-foam food containers at food service businesses at 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. The bill also would cost $800,000 annually to the state Department of Environmental Protection for administering the program.

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