Restaurants in New Jersey may soon be prohibited from automatically tossing a pile of plastic utensils and condiment packets in with takeout and delivery orders.
Under a newly introduced bill, food service businesses in the state would no longer be allowed to provide single-use cutlery or condiment packs unless a customer specifically requests them.
Sponsored by Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-7th District, Assembly Bill 5331 aims not only to decrease plastic waste, but also to spur food service businesses to switch over to more eco-friendly alternatives, such as reusable utensils and packets made from compostable material.
If adopted, the policy would apply to restaurants, food trucks, cafeterias, cafes, grocery stores, convenience stores and other establishments that offer take-out, dine-in, drive-thru or delivery. Food service operators at educational institutions, hospitals, sports arenas and entertainment venues would also need to comply.
Other provisions include:
Under the bill, each day on which a violation occurs counts as a separate offense. Money collected would go to New Jersey Clean Communities, a statewide, comprehensive litter abatement program funded through a tax on companies that produce litter-generating products.
Conaway said his proposal – which comes almost a year after New Jersey enacted one of the strictest plastic bag bans in the country – is meant to encourage customers to “think a little bit about what happens to these items after they’re used and use only the things we need.” He also believes it’s a “common sense” measure that will “save money for a lot of businesses” while doing good for the environment.
Following its March 23 introduction, the bill was referred to the Assembly’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee. Companion legislation has not yet been introduced in the Senate.
The proposal has received mixed feedback from industry stakeholders. Dana Lancellotti, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association – an advocacy group representing 19,000 food and beverage establishments and 1,000 hotels in the state – said, “While we appreciate the intent of the bill, we have several concerns. Instead of another piece of legislation, it would be more sensible to educate the public and food establishment operators on the importance of sustainability and conservative use and distribution of single-use plastics.
“Small business owners can hardly keep up with complying with new rules and regulations constantly streaming out of Trenton. Our state needs to start supporting our small business owners instead of further restricting their ability to efficiently and successfully do business in New Jersey,” Lancellotti continued.
She went on to say the association supports environmentally friendly efforts in all industries, noting that many restaurant operators and hoteliers in New Jersey have already implemented procedures to reduce waste and increase sustainability. “Many removed plastic straws and single-use plastic bags from their business long before the ban on those items was signed into law,” she said.
New Jersey Business & Industry Association Deputy Chief of Government Affairs Ray Cantor took exception to the timing of the proposal, noting that many restaurants “are still struggling to recover” from pandemic-related shutdowns.
“It’s still obviously a time of increased food costs and staffing issues,” he said. “But it is not the time to impose even more burdens and costs on these businesses to solve a problem that does not exist.”
If passed, New Jersey would join a growing number of locales across the country that ban or limit plastic items, such as straws, containers, utensils and bags, as a way to curb plastic pollution. California, Washington and Oregon were among the first states in the U.S. to outlaw single-use plastics and a few others, including Delaware and Illinois, are considering doing the same.
Locally, similar regulations regarding plastic forks, knives and spoons and condiment packets will soon go into effect in both New York City as well as Westchester County, N.Y.
Besides freeing up some valuable space in kitchen drawers, minimizing the use of one-and-done plastic can go a long way toward addressing pollution, environmentalists say.
Currently, nearly half (47%) of the 42 million metric tons of plastic thrown away annually in the U.S. comes from single-use products and packaging, according to Environment America. Since plastic items are generally too small to be recycled, they are brought to landfills and often wind up in waterways, posing severe harm to marine habitats and aquatic wildlife.
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New Jersey has already taken a few steps to get past plastic, including banning single-use plastic carryout bags and polystyrene foam takeout containers and prohibiting plastic straws unless a customer asks for one.
After the state’s plastic bag ban took effect in May 2022, food retailers found the majority of shoppers complied and embraced the mandate, thanks in part to public outreach efforts by the New Jersey Food Council in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey Clean Communities and the New Jersey Business Action Center.
As a result, more than 4.8 billion plastic bags and 95.9 million paper bags have been eliminated from the waste stream so far, the NJFC recently reported.
During Clean Ocean Action’s 2022 beach sweeps, the nonprofit found that while plastics represented 82% of the 376,969 pieces of litter items collected, the number of plastic straws and bags decreased as a result of New Jersey’s bans. Compared to 2021, the number of plastic bags picked up declined 37%, while plastic straws decreased 39% and foam takeout containers by 38%.
While reducing individual plastic footprints is important, environmental advocates believe it’s just as crucial for companies to take action by addressing their production processes, waste management and how operations can impact the environment.
In January 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a recycled content bill establishing postconsumer recycled content requirements for rigid plastic containers, glass containers, paper and plastic carryout bags and plastic trash bags, as well as prohibiting the sale of polystyrene loose fill packaging.
The standards – which take effect in 2024 – are among the most ambitious recycled content laws in the Northeast and could serve as a model for neighboring states aiming to boost the local recycling economy.
In amending the law, state officials said they believe requiring manufacturers to meet minimum recycled content standards will stimulate recycling markets as demand shifts from virgin to postconsumer recycled content. It could also help shield municipal recycling programs from the volatility of the cost to recycle.
However, a manufacturer will be allowed to apply for a waiver from the NJDEP if they can prove they will not be able to achieve the recycled content requirements under certain conditions. The state also allows waivers if the manufacturer cannot comply “due to inadequate availability of recycled material or a substantial disruption in the supply of recycled material,” according to the law.
At Sayreville-based food packaging company Sabert Corp. efforts have already been underway in recent years to expand its offerings of eco-friendly products for a range of food service operations, from supermarkets to fast casual.
The company’s portfolio includes biodegradable packaging and catering products made from various materials with unique sustainability benefits, such as recyclability and recycled content usage. Just a few of those products include compostable green straws, bamboo hot cups, compostable bowls and platters, and plant-based compostable cutlery.
The company’s director of sustainability Rebecca Locker said, “Sabert is committed to sustainability and helping our customers and communities meet the growing demand for eco-friendly food packaging solutions.
“We continue to be proactive in developing new products that are fully recyclable and contain recycled content, and we take a circular economy approach in our product development process,” she said. “We are also committed to reducing plastic waste in the environment by recycling post-consumer waste in our New Jersey recycling facility, contributing to the market growth of recyclables and the recycling industry as a whole.”