Sweeping ban on bags, food containers wins praise after winning votes

‘Great day for New Jersey,’ say activists who worked for years to get ban in place. GOP question why paper bags included

New Jersey is one step away from banning plastic and paper shopping bags, as well as restricting polystyrene-foam food containers in what proponents say is the nation’s toughest program to reduce pollution from such single-use containers.

The legislation (S-864) cleared the Assembly in a 48-24-7 vote as Republican lawmakers questioned why New Jersey is implementing the first ban on single-use paper products, a step that will largely impact large grocery stores. The Senate concurred 26-12 a short time later without debate, sending the bill to Gov. Phil Murphy, who is expected to sign it.

The passage marks a huge victory for many of the state’s environmental organizations, which have made adoption of a single-use plastic bag ban a top priority ever since Gov. Phil Murphy was elected in 2018. Plastic bags have emerged as one of the leading causes of pollution in the ocean and other environments, often breaking down to cause harm to wildlife and marine fisheries.

“It’s a great day for New Jersey in its fight against plastic pollution and packaging,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “What this bill does is make us look to green alternatives when it comes to packaging and bags.’’

Initially opposed by business interests, the push to adopt a ban on single-use plastic bags has been accelerated by up to 57 towns adopting their own, often different bans, some of which include on consumers paying fees to use paper bags. More have banned other plastic products.

In the end, foes, including the New Jersey Food Council, preferred to deal with a single, statewide standard than myriad local ordinances, according to Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin (D-Middlesex), a sponsor of the bill.

Why some opponents shifted to ‘yea’

The New Jersey Food Council, which had opposed the bill previously, shifted its position when so many communities issued such bans, preferring to deal with a statewide ban. At least eight states have adopted statewide bans, beginning with California in 2014, according to the National Conference of the State Legislatures.

“Single-use plastic products are one of the single greatest threats to our oceans, environment and health,’’ Pinkin said in explaining why she was sponsoring the bill.

Credit: (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
File photo

But Republicans criticized the legislation’s inclusion of a ban on paper products. Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) questioned why it is being banned when paper is such a large part of the recycling stream. Polystyrene also is recycled in a facility in Middletown, Bergen said.

“This bill is nothing short of sheer lunacy,’’ he said.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, a Republican from Bergen County, questioned why the state is imposing new costs on businesses during a pandemic that already has cut into their profits, particularly restaurants. “We’re essentially kicking them in the head,’’ she said.

The ban on both plastic bags and paper bags is largely confined to large grocery stores. The bill includes many exemptions, including for uncooked meat, poultry and fish wrapped in bags, prescription drugs from pharmacies, and dry cleaner plastic bags, to mention a few.

Waiver for some polystyrene manufacturers

It sets varying time frames for the legislation to take effect, but generally the ban will not be effective for at least 18 months. The bill also allows for certain polystyrene manufacturers to obtain a waiver from compliance under certain conditions.

In addition, the Chemistry Council of New Jersey contended the ban on polystyrene-foam food containers could cost New Jersey public schools over $4 million a year at a time when school budgets are being cut.

But supporters argue plastics continue to show up in waterways across the state, including the Delaware River. Of debris collections conducted by Clean Ocean Action, nearly 89.7% collected was plastic debris, according to a new report released by the organization.

“For decades, plastic pollution has caused significant damage to the environment and to our public health,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), another sponsor who was widely credited with getting the controversial bill through the Legislature.

Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, called the bill the single most comprehensives plastics and paper reduction bill in the nation. “Building on the success of local laws adopted throughout New Jersey to reduce plastic pollution, the NJ Legislature listened to the people and not the polluter.’’