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Bagging pollution

While legislation on the state level has stalled, towns are moving forward with bans on plastic bags and Styrofoam containers

Mike Lisiewski, the owner of Brighton Beach Surf Shop in Long Beach. (AARON HOUSTON)

One year ago a statewide ban on plastic bags seemed all but certain. A Democrat — Gov. Phil Murphy — took the helm of New Jersey for the first time in eight years. And with Democrats also holding solid majorities in both the Assembly and state Senate, the sky was the limit for environmental activists.

But 15 months later momentum on those efforts has flagged, with the proposed plastic bag ban — Senate Bill 2776 — stalling in the state Legislature. New York beat New Jersey to the punch as the first East Coast state to enact a ban on plastic bags; California and Hawaii are the only other states with prohibitions in place.

“To some degree, the New York ban was a thunder clap from above. New York’s ban is clearly a shot in the arm for the New Jersey legislature’s effort to ban single-use plastics,” said Doug O’Malley, executive director of Environment New Jersey. “Suddenly New Jersey won’t be the guinea pig on the East Coast for banning single-use plastics.”

Lawmakers originally sent Murphy a bill enacting a five cent fee on plastic bags, which the governor vetoed in August. Environmentalists praised the move, worried that if the bill was enacted the state would end up counting on the revenue from the fees, and the bill would fail to reduce plastics-usage.

“Instituting a five-cent fee on single-use bags that only applies to certain retailers does not go far enough to address the problems created by overreliance on plastic bags and other single-use carryout bags,” Murphy said in a veto statement.

But Murphy agreed that the state was not leading the way on the issue. “We are lagging behind, and I hope we can get something together,” Murphy said at an unrelated event in Neptune City on April 8. “I wouldn’t comment specifically on what we should be doing, but we’ve got to do something.”

Opponents of the ban, mainly business groups and chemical manufacturers, cite increased costs along with the threat of job losses and are seeking exceptions for specific uses. Supporters cite the benefits of reducing litter on the state’s streets and beaches — something they say is already evident in towns that have enacted their own bans. In fact, while the legislature debates the parameters of a statewide prohibition, municipalities — especially along the shore — have taken the lead, creating a patchwork of ordinances around New Jersey.

Exemptions and exceptions

S2776 calls for a ban on any plastic bags and straws, as well as polystyrene or Styrofoam containers. The bill would also impose a 10-cent fee on paper bags, half of which goes back to the business and the rest toward a newly created Plastic Pollution Prevention Fund, run by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

The Senate Energy and Environment Committee approved the measure in a 4-1 vote at a Sept. 27 hearing, following several hours of testimony by business groups and environmental activists.

(TROSMISIEK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

“It’s a huge environmental problem,” Senate Environment Chair Bob Smith, D-17th District and the bill’s sponsor, said of plastics pollution as he opened the hearing.

“It may be as big as a problem as the global warming problem on the planet. Serious stuff,” Smith added. “It requires New Jersey citizens to change their lifestyle … When you go get your groceries, you’re going to be bringing your reusable bags.”

Certain businesses could be exempt from the Styrofoam ban if they generate less than $500,000 in gross income annually and lack a “commercially available” alternative, or if “there is no feasible and commercial alternative” for any polystyrene food service product.

Business advocates such as Christine Buteas, chief government affairs officer at the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, argued that shops handling meat, deli products, poultry and seafood should be eligible for a permanent exemption, rather than the year-long waivers called for in the legislation.

Reusable bags can be made of plastic and as such not subject to the ban, as long as they measure at least 10 millimeters in thickness.

A full plate

Proponents of the ban point out that in the six months since Smith’s committee approval of the plastic bag legislation, lawmakers have confronted myriad legislative issues. Those include the attempted legalization of recreational marijuana, a $15 statewide minimum wage, reformation of New Jersey’s tax breaks and Murphy’s planned replacement of economic incentives and the 2020 budget.

“Everyone agrees that we have to do something with our plastic problem, and the question is what is the most effective way of doing it?” said Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, D-18th District and the sponsor of the lower house version, Assembly Bill 4330. That measure was assigned to the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, which she chairs.

“The senator is working with the senate president and the administration on the measure. We’re hoping to move the bill shortly,” Smith’s chief of staff, Cristine Mosier, told NJBIZ.

Pinkin acknowledged that there are kinks that need to be ironed out of the current version of S2776.

For example, the proposal to ban single-use plastic straws drew opposition from disability rights activists, who argued that the straws allow them a certain degree of physical mobility which they would otherwise lack. Although a straw is available upon request, that places an unnecessary burden on the disabled patron, especially because the decision is still left up to the individual employee.

Other household uses?

Opponents in the business community worry that the ban on Styrofoam and single-use plastics will add to the cost of doing business. The rules could be so stringent that many shop owners would simply be forced out of business.

“Who’s going to bear the costs if they ban polystyrene products? The school systems in New Jersey, the institutions that use these products. It’s going to cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace Styrofoam products. And small businesses, I don’t know how they handle [this].” said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, whose member companies include manufacturers of Styrofoam.

“The bags are not single-use. Everyone I know, they get a bag that they use for other purposes around the house,” Hart added.

One of the groups leading the statewide opposition is the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of manufacturers that employ 25,000 workers across 40 states.

Everyone agrees that we have to do something with our plastic problem, and the question is what is the most effective way of doing it?
– Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, D-18th District

The group has fought bans in California and New York; in New Jersey it hired Princeton Public Affairs Group and the prominent public relations firm Edelman.

“No doubt it goes further” than other states, said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the alliance, referring to the New Jersey proposal. “It hits both expanded polystyrene and straws. When you combine those two things plus a ban on essentially all plastic retail bags, that’s how it goes further,” Seaholm added.

“What are you replacing the product with to help the individual or the consumer out?” asked Mike Egenton, executive vice president of government relations at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “The product is there for a purpose, but ‘here’s something that’s more environmentally safe and friendly that we’re going to use’ — that wasn’t really answered,” Egenton added.

Buteas testified at the Sept. 27 hearing that “New Jersey’s plastics industry directly employs more than 18,000 employees in the Garden State. Any effort to limit plastics consumption would decrease the need for plastics manufacturing and could jeopardize these jobs.”

She also cited jobs in the supply chain, which includes transportation and logistics of plastic bags, while restaurants would have to take on the added cost of the paper bags.

The New York legislation, scheduled to take effect next March, provides for several carve-outs, and groups in New Jersey are seeking similar exceptions.

New York’s exemptions apply to food takeout bags at restaurants, as well as bags used to wrap deli and meat products. Bags for newspapers and bulk items will also be exempt.

Hoboken’s plastic bag ban, which took effect in January, allows exemptions for bags used for “frozen foods, meat, fish, flowers, plants or baked goods,” pharmacy prescription bags, bags for packaging, newspaper bags and packages for “food storage bags, garbage bags [or] pet waste bags.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey Chapter, said that the ban on plastic bags and Styrofoam, as well as increasing public support for such measures, has prompted many businesses to be innovative in creating “greener” more environmentally friendly products.

“There will be other products that will be reusable or made out of better materials. Boxes in restaurants [have] better materials coming out of agriculture versus coming out of fossil fuels,” Tittel said. “The whole point is there’s a whole new industry of green packaging that’s evolving … right now.”

Town by town

Roughly two dozen towns have enacted ordinances banning either single-use plastics, Styrofoam containers or both.

Some municipalities have also enacted fees of 5 to 10 cents on paper bags, while others introduced the fee for plastic bags instead of a ban.

Mike Lisiewski, the owner of Brighton Beach Surf Shop in Long Beach. (AARON HOUSTON)

Many of the bans were enacted in shore towns and go into effect by the start of summer, but municipalities such as Hoboken, Monmouth Beach, Long Beach and Point Pleasant Beach have bans in effect.

“We don’t want to see each of our towns and counties come up with their own idea,” Pinkin said, which could result in a confusing and perhaps contradictory variety of ordinances.

But environmental activists said that the town-by-town ordinances will be their main strategy in the absence of a statewide ban.

“We’re looking at the local level with town ordinances, getting it passed with different towns, trying to build more local support,” Tittel said.

“These towns pass it…and people seem to be adjusting very well. I think it sends a message to other towns that they can pass ordinances as well,” Tittel added. “Hopefully the more towns we can get, I’m sure the Legislature will go forward.”

Several business owners told NJBIZ that they support the ordinances and understood the impact of single-use plastics on the environment, but nonetheless incurred added expenses because of the new regulations.

“It’s definitely more money every year. Overhead changes, insurance goes up a little bit, electricity goes up a little bit. It just becomes one thing that goes up a little bit,” said Mike Lisiewski, the owner of Brighton Beach Surf Shop in Long Beach, where the ban on single-use plastics went into effect last May.

Lisiewski said he provides reusable bags at no charge to the customers — who come into his store to buy beach products such as towels, outdoor chairs, coolers and sunscreen.

“It’s a good thing. I surf early in the morning, I’m the one who sees the bags on the beach,” Lisiewski said. “I mean it really is horrible for the environment. They really don’t break down, they really blow all over and they always end up in the ocean.”

In Hoboken, Wicked Wolf Tavern General Manager Sean Sullivan said the transition to paper bags for take-out was relatively seamless for the business.

“It’s beneficial for the environment but it’s not the most cost-efficient thing,” Sullivan said.

Like Lisiewski, the tavern does not charge for the paper bags. But, Sullivan added, most of the paper bags are used for online delivery services such as Grubhub and UberEats, rather than take-out.

Hoboken City Councilman James Doyle, who also sits on the environmental commission and crafted the ordinance, pointed out that the businesses get to keep the 10 cents that they might charge for the paper bags, an added bonus for them.

“This went into effect Jan. 22, and we had a fairly breezy spring. So far, the number of bags that you see, just walking around town, seems to be noticeably less, blowing around the streets, on the sidewalk,” Doyle said. “I think it’s having an effect, a positive effect.”

The Lambertville City Council approved a ban on Styrofoam and single-use plastics that businesses can opt into starting Oct. 1, followed by a mandatory prohibition on Jan. 1.

Lambertville Environmental Commission Director Elizabeth Peer said the city has been stepping up local educational programs so that residents, visitors and businesses know about the reusable alternatives to plastic bags and Styrofoam.

They range from local programs at the library for children to the “Sustainable Business Awards” highlighting environmentally friendly efforts of local businesses.

“We developed the initiative and are going to implement it starting in the spring, and the goal … is to educate the community about the harmful effects of these materials, provide the residents and businesses a wide range of easy-to-adopt actions,” Peer said. “We would encourage businesses to use compost-friendly take-out containers,” or encourage patrons to bring reusable containers.

 

Daniel J. Munoz
Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.