NJ ban on plastic and paper bags approved — now it’s up to Murphy
TRENTON — Single-use plastic and paper carryout bags, as well as polystyrene food packaging, are on the brink of being phased out in New Jersey under a bill approved Thursday by the Legislature that also limits the availability of plastic straws.
The bill is now before Gov. Phil Murphy, who has until Nov. 9 to sign or veto it.
Prohibitions on bags at stores and food-service businesses, as well as Styrofoam food packaging, would take effect 18 months after is signed, meaning some point in the spring of 2022. Plastic straws would be available only upon request starting in a year.
“Single-use plastic products are one of the greatest threats to our oceans, our environment and our health,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, D-Middlesex, who said that such products break down into plastics that can last for centuries, rather than biodegrade.
“The point of the bill is to encourage customers to adopt reusable durable bags, which are the most environmentally friendly options,” Pinkin said.
The ban on paper bags would be the first of its kind but apply only to grocery stores with more than 2,500 square feet of space. The New Jersey Food Council, which represents supermarkets, endorsed the bill because it banned paper bags – which are more expensive – along with the plastic ones.
Some Republican lawmakers warned that the rules will hurt retailers as well as paper-bag manufacturers.
“Including paper in this bill is an aberration, and it’s an overreach, and it shouldn’t be done,” said Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris.
“I really believe that the bill has a lot of good to it. I think the timing of it is just terrible,” said Assemblyman Sean Kean, R-Monmouth, who cited the pandemic’s impact on restaurants. "So this is going to be our reward to them for just enduring since March probably the worst business environment that they’ve seen. If any of these folks come back, it’s going to be remarkable. A lot of them won’t.”
Democrats said the bags and polystyrene portions of the proposed law wouldn’t take effect for a year and half and that, hopefully, the effects of the pandemic would have faded by then.
“This is a legacy bill, for each and every one of us,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex. “There is an ecological catastrophe in the form of what’s out there as it relates to plastic. Someone mentioned lunacy before. You know lunacy is? There’s about to be more plastic than fish in our oceans and waterways.”
A version of the bill was passed by the Senate in January, on the last day of the legislative session, but wasn’t taken up by the Assembly and had to begin the process over.
The Senate passed it again in March, but it was amended repeatedly before its approval Thursday in the Assembly by a 48-24 vote, with seven votes to abstain. The Senate reapproved it a short time later, 26-12.
Environmental groups applauded the approval, which ends a years-long push.
"“This is a major environmental victory in our battle against plastics," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "The Legislature has passed the most comprehensive plastic bill in the nation."
Businesses in violation of the bill would be subject to a warning for a first offense, a fine up to $1,000 for a second offense, and up to a $5,000 fine for a third or subsequent offense.
Industry groups urged Murphy to veto the bill.
“Paper is part of the environmental solution, but New Jersey is treating it like the problem," said Heidi Brock, president and chief executive officer of the American Forest & Paper Association. "Gov. Murphy should take action to ensure continued consumer access to a recyclable, reusable and compostable product — the paper bag.”
Pinkin said the plastic-bag ban has exemptions for uncooked meat, fish and poultry, packaging for loose items such as fruits and vegetables, food sliced to order, laundry, dry cleaning, newspapers and more. She said there are also exemptions for some foam food packaging.
“You will not have to give up your Oodles of Noodles, even though you’ve been warned about that,” Pinkin said.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.