Lawmakers made the first move in over a year on a bill that would ban plastic and paper bags, along with most other single-use plastics.
The measure, Senate Bill 2776, which the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved on Dec. 5, would phase in the prohibitions over a two-year period. Consumers would still be able to use plastic drinking straws.
Proponents argue the law would make New Jersey a national trailblazer in environmental protection. Businesses contend that the ban would hurt their bottom line, increase costs to consumers and lead many establishments to shut down.
The measure was approved in September 2018 by a Senate committee after Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a version of the bill that would have enacted a 5-cent fee on plastic bags.
“We have a public health crisis,” Sen. Bob Smith, D-17th District, a sponsor of the bill, said Thursday.
“The amount of plastic in our oceans will soon outweigh all of the fish in the ocean combined. Plastic bag bans have proven effective elsewhere,” he added in a statement.
S2776 would prohibit businesses from selling or giving out plastic bags starting one year after its enactment. Paper bags would be similarly prohibited the next year. A year after the bill is signed, businesses would only be allowed to give out plastic straws at the request of the customer.
“The disability community made a very strong argument that they need to be out there,” Smith said. “They’re not going to be automatically in your drink … you have to ask for them.”
An amendment added Thursday would require large supermarkets to provide free, reusable bags to customers for two months.
The measure also prohibits businesses from offering food in a polyesterine or Styrofoam containers two years after the bill is signed.
Businesses that violate the restrictions would face a $500 penalty for the first offense, up to $1,000 for a second offense and up to $5,000 for the third offense.
S2776 also offers a three-year exemption on the Styrofoam ban, aimed at addressing concerns from businesses regarding its commonplace usage in food packaging and safety.
Some of the exemptions call for Styrofoam to be allowed for raw meat and fish trays, portion cups of up to two ounces and food products that are pre-packaged by the manufacturer with Styrofoam.
But Mary Ellen Peppard, vice president of government affairs for the trade group the New Jersey Food Council, said two years was not enough time.
“There are no polystyrene [alternatives] on the market that are normal, that are cost effective and biodegradable,” she told lawmakers. “There really needs to be a permanent extension for products like raw meat, as well as products that are manufactured on site.”
Business owners can ask for an exemption if they generate less than $500,000 in gross annual income and if there is no commercially viable alternative to Styrofoam.
Over the two years following the bill’s signing, S2776 would replace any restrictions that municipal or county governments have enacted on paper bags, straws, plastic bags, Styrofoam and any other single-use plastics.
A 15-member Plastics Advisory Council would be formed within the Department of Environmental Protection to study the effectiveness of the bill, including its impact on the environment and public health.