The state Senate approved a bill banning paper and plastic bags along with Styrofoam on the heels of reports that New York has been hit with paper bag shortages after that state’s plastics prohibition went into effect on March 1.
Under the latest version of the ban, Senate Bill 864, the state would outlaw the three products in 18 months. But Assembly leaders and Gov. Phil Murphy’s office have suggested that the bans be staggered, perhaps by separating the bans on paper and plastic.
“Is 18 months the right time, should it be shorter, should it be faster, should it be staggered,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, asked during a radio segment last month. “Do we stagger the paper bag and plastic bag implementation period, there’s issues around that for example.”
The Senate approved the bill by a 22-14 vote at the Senate on March 5. An Assembly version has yet to be introduced.
The bill’s supporters and Senate sponsors contend that the scenario playing out in New York – where businesses have stocked up on paper bags, leading to prices jumping and a marketplace shortage – could be prevented in New Jersey by moving ahead with the three-pronged ban.
“We’re trying to do it together” – that is, ban the two types of bags “at the same time” – Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, told NJBIZ. “There’s a shortage of paper bags. We’re at max capacity, they’re buying bags from Vietnam. Prices are going up.”
Proponents of banning paper and plastic bags, and Styrofoam products, point to the harmful effect that these products have on the environment and public health.
“Plastic bags are literally killing us,” Sen. Bob Smith D-17th District, the bill’s main sponsors, told reporters before the Senate vote. “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 … you’re eating fish … or sea creatures that have plastic particulates in them.”
The debate has centered on how to minimize the impact on businesses that use paper and plastic, so that they do not have to pass on any costs to consumers.
Many grocery stores and restaurants, for example, have Styrofoam and plastic wrapping baked into sanitary food safety practices, and worry that no low-cost, viable alternative exists, according to Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey.
Plastic straws would still be available under the bill, but only at the request of the customer – a provision which Smith said was inserted at the request of the state’s disability community.
A new amendment would exempt grocery stores that are smaller than 2,500 square feet – applying mainly to city bodegas. The bill sets aside $500,000 annually for three years after its effective date to fund a statewide public awareness campaign to promote reusable bags.
Groups such as the American Recycled Plastic Bag Alliance has pushed for allowing thicker plastic bags, which they argue could effectively become reusable bags, but environmental activists such as the New Jersey Sierra Club and Clean Ocean Action have pushed back against this proposal. Smith meanwhile said it would be a non-starter.
In the absence of a state law, dozens of towns and and counties across the state have passed their own ordinances enacting a variety of restrictions. The patchwork of ordinances could ultimately mean dozens of differing regulations for businesses and consumers.
But Smith maintained that this was in part a strategy to keep the pressure on lawmakers—and that S864 calls for state law to supersede any of those ordinances.