A long-dormant bill that would add New Jersey to the list of states banning single-use bags for consumers was given new life Thursday when the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted to release it for a vote in the full Legislature.
Voting 8-4, with one abstention, the committee approved S-2776, which would prohibit stores, restaurants and other food-service businesses from providing single-use plastic or paper bags, as well as polystyrene foam cups and food containers. Plastic straws would only be available to those customers who request them.
The ban on single-use bags would become effective in a year; the prohibition against polystyrene containers would go into effect in two years.
“So, this is a public health crisis, it is not just, if I can say the word ‘just,’ [an] environmental crisis,” said Sen. Bob Smith, the Democrat who chairs the Environment Committee in the upper house and is the bill’s sponsor. “What we’re doing, or what we have in front of you today is the strongest plastics legislation in the United States of America.”
An earlier version of the bill approved by the Legislature in the summer of 2018 was vetoed by Gov. Phil Murphy who said he wanted a stronger law. It provided for a ban on plastic bags and would have imposed a five-cent fee for paper bags.
Since then, more than 50 New Jersey municipalities have passed ordinances to reduce the use of plastic bags, straws, balloons, and Styrofoam containers. Other states have followed suit. Maine banned polystyrene containers. New York prohibited single-use plastic bags in March.
Lawmakers have long been pressed for a ban on single-use plastics because of their impact on the environment, especially in waterways where they can impair water quality and harm fish and other sea life. Studies have also shown that they despoil natural areas, gathering in great masses in oceans and in the worldwide spread of micro-particles that result when the plastic breaks down over time.
“Plastic pollution is not just causing those islands of plastic out in the Pacific, but it’s actually impacting wildlife here in New Jersey, killing shorebirds, killing dolphins,” said Jeff Tittel of the state Sierra Club. “But it’s also a major source of litter. It fills up our storm drains creating more pollution.”
Violators would first be subject to warnings and then fines — as high as $5,000 — and county and local officials would share enforcement duties with the state Department of Environmental Protection. A state program to assist businesses in complying with the bill is also envisioned under the bill.
Single-use plastic bags have also been banned in Connecticut and Delaware.
Critics took aim at the bill for a requirement that big chain grocery stores provide free reusable bags for up to two months after the law takes effect.
“The cost … to give away bags for one retailer with approximately 30 stores would be $12.8 million for the first month,” said Michael DeLoreto, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Food Council.
The Chemistry Council of New Jersey opposes the polystyrene ban. It says the state has a growing industry to recycle the material.
“We’ve told the Legislature the industry’s prepared to pay the state funding to expand these recycling efforts,” said Dennis Hart, the council’s executive director. “Based on the products sold, we’re prepared to give the state 20 to 25 million dollars a year for the state to give the locals to implement recycling.”
Mayor Tony Perry of Middletown said his community just bought equipment to recycle polystyrene.
“And what we do is we compress them down into a little small, looks like a donut, and we sell it to a company right here in New Jersey called Better Frames,” he said. “And they’re taking this polystyrene and turning it into picture frames, floor and crown molding.”