The ban is officially in the bag.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday signed a new law banning businesses from handing out single-use plastic bags, polystyrene food containers, plastic straws and paper bags in New Jersey. The measure, which was passed by state lawmakers in September, is seen as the strictest stance against single-use plastics in the nation.
“Plastic bags are one of the most problematic forms of garbage, leading to millions of discarded bags that stream annually into our landfills, rivers, and oceans,” Murphy said in statement. “With today’s historic bill signing, we are addressing the problem of plastic pollution head-on with solutions that will help mitigate climate change and strengthen our environment for future generations.”
The new regulations prohibit food service businesses from giving customers single-use plastic bags and polystyrene food containers. The bans apply to a variety of businesses, including restaurants, convenience stores, food trucks, movie theaters and grocery stores that are 2,500 square feet or larger.
Grocery stores would be prohibited from giving paper bags to customers.
The new rules for plastic and paper bags, and polystyrene containers, become effective in May 2022. There are exemptions for some disposable items, including:
- Bags wrapping raw meat
- Polystyrene butcher trays
- Bags used for loose items like produce
- Bags that hold fish and insects from pet stores
- Dry cleaning bags
- Newspaper bags
- Bags carrying prescription drugs
The new law also restricts food-service businesses from handing out plastic straws, unless specifically requested by a customer, beginning in November 2021.
For business that break these rules, the law allows for a warning for the first violation, a $1,000 fine for the second violation and $5,000 fines for the third violation and every violation after that. All fines collected would go to Clean Communities Program Fund, which pays for litter clean-up grants across New Jersey.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for overseeing the new regulations, and has the authority to give businesses waivers for some kinds of economic hardships.
The law allows for such waivers when “there is no feasible and commercially available alternative for a specific polystyrene foam food service product” or if a business has less than $500,000 in annual income.
“From our cities to our shores, single-use plastic bags unnecessarily litter New Jersey’s most treasured spaces and pollute our ecosystems,” DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe said. “By banning single-use plastic bags, Gov. Murphy and our legislature continue to make a New Jersey a national leader in environmental protection and the DEP stands ready to implement these new measures and educate the public.”
Beyond the bans, the law also creates a “Plastics Advisory Council” within the DEP, which would be tasked with monitoring the implementation of the new regulations and studying plastic waste in New Jersey. The council would consist of the DEP commissioner, the state health commissioner, the state agriculture secretary and a variety of people representing environmental and industry interests.
To help New Jerseyans adjust to life without the ubiquitous, thin grocery bags, the law allocates $500,000 each year for three years to fund a public education campaign, and to hand-out free reusable bags. State Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, previously estimated that the state will hand out about two million bags through this program.
Smith, who was a primary sponsor of the measure, was one of multiple Democratic state lawmakers who praised Murphy for signing the law.
“Environmental activists and supporters of this bill have been waiting years for this moment. Plastic pollution has caused untold damage to the environment and to our public health,” Smith said. “Taking action to fight plastic pollution now is key to moving towards a plastic-free future. I want to thank the Governor for being a strong partner on this legislation.”
Attempts to curb single-use plastics in the Garden State have been underway for years. State lawmakers passed a tax on plastic and paper bags in 2018, but Murphy vetoed that measure because he did not feel it was strong enough.
Legislators responded by creating the initial versions of this new law.
“This is an environmental victory that’s been years in the making,” said Amy Goldsmith, the New Jersey state director for Clean Water Action. “Thank you Gov. Murphy not once but twice — first for vetoing the 2018 bill that would set back efforts to prevent plastic waste, and now for signing the nation’s strongest waste reduction law. It was well worth the wait. New Jersey is now leading the paradigm shift away from single use disposables to reusables.”
Dozens of cities, towns and counties across New Jersey have already passed some form of restrictions on plastic bags, straws and polystyrene food containers. (Many of those local rules have been put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic.)
The new law allows those existing measures would be allowed to remain in place until the new statewide regulations become effective.
“The health and safety of future generations depend on the choices we make today. Single-use plastic products are one of the single greatest threats to our oceans, environment, and health,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, D-Middlesex, who also sponsored the new law. “Many of our municipalities have already taken steps to limit the use of carryout bags and containers; now, it’s time for the State to act. This is the strongest law implemented in the nation to curb the use of these products and maintains New Jersey’s stance as a leader in environmental protection.”
Plastic pollution is a growing scourge to the environment, in New Jersey and abroad. A report published by NY/NJ Baykeeper in 2016 estimated that 165 million pieces of plastic were floating waters through the New York City area, from the East River to Raritan Bay. The majority of that pollution was in the form of micro-plastics, which are tiny pieces of plastic fragments that can make their way into the food chain, and eventually into our meals.
Just last month, Clean Ocean Action’s latest round of “Beach Sweeps” picked thousands of pieces of plastic off the Jersey Shore. Cindy Zipf, the group’s executive director, was one of a score of Garden State environmental advocates who applauded state leaders for making the ban a reality.
“It’s a good day for marine critters and the power of the people,” Zipf said in a statement. “For over 35 years, thousands of COA’s Beach Sweep volunteers have collected over 7.2 million pieces of trash, mostly plastic, off NJ’s beaches. Thanks to Gov. Murphy and the NJ Legislature, we’ve successfully drawn a line in the sand and made NJ a world leader in reducing the plastic plague on this marvel of a planet.”
State lawmakers included paper bags in part because of different environmental concerns: Paper bags take more energy to make and thus produce more greenhouse gases, according to the New York Times.
The New Jersey Food Council, which lobbies on behalf of grocery stores, specifically supported including the ban on paper bags in the law. But the group was most happy to see a single statewide set of rules, rather than regulations that vary from town-to-town.
“This law ends the proliferation of varying local ordinances,” said Linda Doherty, president and CEO of the NJFC. “The unworkable patchwork underscored the importance of having this smart, uniform statewide law that preempts all local ordinances.”
The American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, which advocates for the plastics industry, warned the ban will lead to more expenses for consumers and could threaten manufacturing jobs in New Jersey.
“Banning plastic bags puts additional, unnecessary pressure on struggling small businesses and imperils their capacity to recover from the economic challenges the pandemic has caused,” said Zachary Taylor, the group’s director.
The American Forest & Paper Association, which had called on Murphy to strike the language in the law related to paper bags, gave a similar warning.
“New Jersey is now the only state in the nation to ban paper bags, which are made from a renewable resource and are recyclable, reusable and compostable, providing a safe packaging option to protect purchases from damage and contamination,” said Heidi Brock, the AF&PA’s president and CEO. “With the stroke of a pen, Gov. Murphy sent an alarming message in devaluing family-wage manufacturing jobs, which are often union labor. This is an unfortunate message to send to the thousands of people working in direct and indirect jobs supported by the paper and wood products industry in the Garden State.”
This story was updated at 2:02 p.m. with comment from the American Forest & Paper Association.
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Michael Sol Warren may be reached at [email protected].