The governor wanted more, and that’s exactly what lawmakers are trying to deliver.
After Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a bill that would’ve created a five-cent sales tax on plastic and paper disposable bags and calling for stricter measures, lawmakers are back with a new proposal aimed at cutting back on plastic waste in the Garden State.
The proposal would ban stores from handing out single-use plastic shopping bags, plastic drinking straws and polystyrene food containers (like foam takeout clamshells) from being used in New Jersey. The bill would also create a 10-cent fee on single-use paper bags, which would finance a new “Plastic Pollution Prevention Fund.”
The bill was advanced out of Senate environment committee on Thursday with a four-to-one vote.
The proposed regulations would be the strictest rules for single-use plastics in the nation according to the New Jersey Sierra Club, which endorses the measure.
“This bill is imperative to reduce the use of plastics in our environment, especially plastic bags and plastic straws,” said Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This is critical legislation and we need the Governor to sign it by the end of the year.”
Most of the litter on New Jersey beaches is plastic, according to data collected by Clean Ocean Action. The group, which organizes biannual clean up events along the shore, found that more than three-quarters of the trash it picked up in 2017 was plastic. The plastic trash becomes concentrated on beaches and in the ocean after being swept away by rivers and streams.
Farther inland, plastic trash may be more scattered. In July, a study of litter along 94 Garden State roadways released by the New Jersey Clean Communities Council found that the leading source of roadside trash in New Jersey is vehicle and construction debris, making up about 18 percent of waste found. Straws, cups and lids made up about 10 percent of the trash, while bags and take-out food packaging each made up about 5 percent.
Opponents of the bill also described it as unprecedented, but in a much more pessimistic light. Matt Seaholm, the executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, described the proposal as “probably the farthest reaching and most onerous piece of legislation” to deal with plastics in the country. Seaholm argued that the bill would place financial burdens on both consumers and small business owners.
“You’re going to see an incredible amount of pain,” Seaholm said.
Under the new bill, any food service business or store that has more than 1,000 square feet of retail space would be banned from handing out single-use plastic bags. Exceptions are made non-handled bags made of plastic film, like the ones found in produce aisles.
All food service businesses would be banned from handing out or selling plastic straws. The only exception to the straw ban would be if a customer required a straw because of a disability or medical condition.
The polystyrene container ban would apply to every business in the state. Polystyrene containers used for raw meat and seafood, like butcher trays, would still be allowed under a one year exemption.
The bill allows for that exemption to be extended as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection sees fit. Small businesses would be exempt from the polystyrene ban if “reasonably affordable” alternatives are not available.
The proposed 10-cent fee on paper bags would send five cents back to the store operators. The remaining money would go to the newly created fund. The New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, a supporter of the bill, praised the paper bag fee.
“Paper bags are extremely resource-intensive and, in the U.S., we use over 10 billion per year. That results in thousands of acres of trees cut down, over 1,300 acres just from New Jersey’s paper bag consumption,” said Ed Potosnak, the executive director of the NJLCV. “This fee is essential to drive the behavioral change we need – and that’s to use reusable bags.”
Businesses who violate the proposed regulations would face up to $500 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second and $5,000 for each offense after that.
If passed, the bill would replace any existing plastic bag, straw and polystyrene regulations at the local and county levels. The statewide ban would go into effect one year after being signed into law.
Murphy quipped on the campaign trail that he wanted to make New Jersey more like California. The Golden State has a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags and places a fee on single-use paper bags. Earlier this month, California became the first state to ban restaurants from automatically handing out plastic straws; customers will need to request them. California lawmakers have repeatedly failed to ban polystyrene food containers in the state.
A few towns in New Jersey already have regulations like the ones proposed in the bill. Earlier this month, Lambertville passed an ordinance banning plastic bags, straws and polystyrene. The New Jersey Sierra Club described the ordinance as one of the strictest in the state.
“Until we get a statewide ban on plastics, Lambertville’s ordinance should be a model for other towns to reduce their plastic waste in New Jersey,” Tittel said.