New Jersey Legislature Passes ‘Most Comprehensive’ Plastics Ban in the Nation
A plastic bag caught in a tree in New Jersey's Palisades Park. James Leynse / Stone / Getty Images
New Jersey is one step closer to passing what environmental advocates say is the strongest anti-plastic legislation in the nation.
The state Legislature passed a sweeping measure Thursday that would ban plastic bags from stores and restaurants and single-use food and drink containers made from polystyrene foam, The New York Times reported. The ban is noteworthy for being the first in the country to include supermarket paper bags as well as plastic ones.
“This is the single most comprehensive plastics and paper reduction bill in the nation,” former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regional Administrator and Beyond Plastics President Judith Enck said in a statement published by Insider NJ. “Building on the success of local laws adopted throughout New Jersey to reduce plastic pollution, the NJ State Legislature listened to the people and not the polluters and embraced a sensible environmental strategy.”
The bill now passes to Gov. Philip Murphy, who intends to sign it, a spokesperson told The New York Times. The bans on bags and containers will go into effect 18 months after he does so, NorthJersey.com reported.
In addition to banning plastic and paper bags and plastic food containers, the bill will also limit plastic straws in restaurants so that they will only be available upon request. There are exemptions for newspaper bags; bags used for loose produce, fish or meat; dry-cleaning bags and prescription drug bags.
The measure effectively settles a long-running debate about whether plastic or paper bags are worse for the environment by banning both. Plastic bags account for about 12 percent of U.S. plastic pollution, according to The New York Times. But paper bags need more energy, and therefore more climate pollution, to make. New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittle said the new legislation would encourage people to use more sustainable, reusable shopping bags.
However, the ban on paper bags was also the key to getting an important supermarket trade group to support the bill, NorthJersey.com reported. The organization argued that it would cost stores too much to supply customers with only paper bags.
“The ban on paper bags is critically important to the success of this legislation,” New Jersey Food Council President Linda Doherty said ahead of Thursday’s vote. “Without a ban, consumers will simply move to paper single-use bags and we will not address the underlying goal of reducing our reliance on single-use products.”
However, the food council originally opposed any sort of statewide bag ban, NJ Spotlight News reported. It changed its position after as many as 57 communities passed their own separate bans and it decided it would be easier to deal with a single, statewide law than a patchwork of local ones.
Not everyone has been persuaded, however. American Forest and Paper Association President and Chief Executive Heidi Brock said the bill unfairly targeted her industry.
“The New Jersey Legislature has undermined an environmentally responsible option for consumers,” she said in a statement reported by The New York Times. “Furthermore, the ban on paper bags sends an alarming message in devaluing family wage jobs, which are often union labor, in addition to the indirect jobs supported by the paper and wood products industry in the state.”
Republican Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, meanwhile, argued that the bill would put an additional burden on a restaurant industry already struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re essentially kicking them in the head,” she said, as NJ Spotlight News reported.
On the other hand, environmental advocates argued that plastic has long polluted New Jersey waterways. In recent years, more than 80 percent of the litter gathered on beaches by Clean Ocean Action from Cape May to Sandy Hook has been plastic, NorthJersey.com reported. The material has even been found in some of the state’s most pristine rivers and creeks.
“Now, we can all look forward to picking up less trash on our beaches,” Clean Ocean Action executive director Cindy Zipf told NorthJersey.com. “There will be less plastics in the ocean to cause harm and death to marine life.”