New version of plastic bag ban gets OK from the state Senate

A new effort to impose a statewide ban on plastic bags and other single-use totes won approval in the state Senate on Thursday, in the form of a bill that closely resembles a version that failed to pass muster at the end of the last legislative session.

Designed to limit the amount of plastic that ends up in the environment — especially oceans and other waterways — S864 would prohibit the use or sale of plastic and paper carryout bags in grocery stores and other businesses, as well as polystyrene foam for restaurant takeout orders. It was approved by the Senate, 22-14.

Sen. Linda Greenstein, a co-sponsor of the measure said a ban is needed because, while many people recycle the bags properly, others don’t.

“That’s evidenced by the fact that there’s so much plastic in the ocean that it’s choking off seas animals,” said the Democrat who represents parts of Mercer and Middlesex Counties. “It’s creating islands of plastic. They find plastic inside whales and other animals.”

“It’s very important for us to keep a healthy ocean, because that’s an important part of the world ecology,” she added.

Versions of such a ban have been under consideration in the State House for more than a year. One was vetoed by the governor, and another died for a lack of votes during the last lame-duck session. This incarnation must still be approved by the state Assembly, and one environmentalist said that vote might not take place until June.

The bill calls for a graduated schedule of fines for violations and delineates numerous exceptions. It would not take effect until 18 months after becoming law.

The measure also creates a 15-member Plastic Advisory Council that would be called upon to review and evaluation the implementation of the law and its effectiveness.

Opponents have said the statewide ban is another example of legislative overkill.

“I think it’s going to be a great inconvenience for the residents of the state of New Jersey,” said Republican Sen. Mike Doherty, who added: “There’s a lot of New Jersey residents that are just sick and tired of out-of-control government. You can’t walk across the street without running into some government regulation and this is just more of the same.”

Doherty, whose district spans Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren Counties, said he was not opposed to bans at the municipal level, if local officials decided to impose them.

Sen. Bob Smith, who co-sponsored the bill with Greenstein, said the problems posed by plastics in the environment are severe.

“The truth of the matter is that plastic bags are literally killing us,” the Democrat said. “Not only do we have continents of plastic in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but these plastics break down into what are called microplastics and they’re in your body and in every single person who’s listening to you now.”

Smith said research has shown that freshwater fish in the Raritan and Passaic Rivers have plastic particles in their bodies.

“So you’re eating fish or other sea creatures that have plastic particles in them,” he said. “They bring into your body organic chemicals, some of which are thought to be carcinogenic. This is a major health crisis.”