Businesses arguing against NJ’s proposed ban on plastic bags, Styrofoam and straws say littering could be solved with better recycling. Scott Fallon, Staff Writer, @NewsFallon
The global push to ban everyday plastic products that litter oceans and waterways has no greater fight in the U.S. in 2019 than in New Jersey where the most far-reaching set of plastics regulations in the nation is slowly making its way through Trenton.
Manufacturers and retailers are gearing up to defeat a bill that would ban plastic bags, foam containers and plastic straws, fearing passage in New Jersey could prompt other states to adopt similar regulations.
“No state or major city has taken on all three so the stakes are high,” said John Weber, Mid-Atlantic manager of the Surfrider Foundation, a clean ocean and beach advocacy group. “A lot of other states are taking note because it would be the most comprehensive plastics legislation in the country.”
Supporters, like Weber, say the measure will curb plastic litter that is inundating New Jersey’s beaches, riverfronts, streets and even some of its most serene waterways.
Support is growing with more than two dozen towns and cities enacting their own regulations from large cities like Hoboken and Jersey City to Shore towns like Bradley Beach and Point Pleasant to curb the 4.5 billion plastic bags and other products given to New Jersey shoppers each year.
But a coalition of plastics manufacturers, convenience stores, supermarkets and other businesses that turned out in force at a September legislative hearing to oppose the bill say the measure will cost jobs and do little to curb litter.
Leading the way is the the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of manufacturers that employ 25,000 workers in 40 states and has fought against bans on its product in California, New York and other places across the country.
The group has hired New Jersey’s largest lobbying firm – Princeton Public Affairs – and the world’s largest public relations firm – Edelman – in its fight against a statewide ban.
New Jersey’s proposed ban “goes way further than anything any state or municipality has done,” Matt Seaholm, executive director of the bag alliance, said in an interview last month.
Seaholm said defeating New Jersey’s bill is on the top of his group’s national agenda. He intends to concentrate on lobbying lawmakers who have a bag manufacturer or plastics recycling facility in their district, including the sponsor of the bill Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex. Smith did not respond to a request for comment.
Novolex, a packaging company, has a plastic bag factory in Logan Township, Gloucester County, which falls in Senate President Steve Sweeney’s district. Mark Daniels, an executive at Novolex, said in September that a ban would likely result in layoffs at the facility.
Unlike his organization’s campaign in California, Seaholm said his group would not be giving campaign donations to New Jersey lawmakers or political organizations. His organization raised more than $6 million to try to defeat California’s ban, which was ultimately approved by a public referendum in 2016.
“Our focus is working with legislators to help them understand the unintended consequences of anything they might do,” Seaholm said. “I would argue that the bill is trying to take a sledgehammer to a mosquito.”
Surrounded by water on three sides and sandwiched between New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey has become inundated with plastics litter.
- About 85 percent of the litter picked up at two annual beach cleanups by Clean Ocean Action in 2017 was plastic.
- A 2016 report by NY/NJ Baykeeper estimated that there were almost 166 million pieces of microscopic plastic floating in the waterways of New Jersey and New York.
- Scientists have found microplastics in some of the most pristine rivers and creeks, including the upper Raritan and Passaic rivers.
Grocery store bags can be recycled and are often used again to line garbage cans and pick up pet waste.
Seaholm cites a 2018 litter survey done for the New Jersey Clean Communities Council that shows branded and unbranded plastic bags make up 2.5 percent of litter, which would still place it in the survey’s top 10 items. It is similar to the amount found by Clean Ocean Action in its beach cleanups.
The consultant group that conducted the survey – Environmental Resources Planning of Maryland – has done work with advocacy groups and industry such as the bag alliance and American Chemistry Council, which also fights against plastic bans, said Steven Stein, the firm’s owner.
Stein said the surveys are done without any influence from current or past clients and was paid for by the state Department of Environmental Protection. It was reviewed by an environmental group – NY/NJ Baykeeper – that supports a plastic ban and a business group – the NJ Food Council – whose member supermarkets are affected by the bans.
Environmental groups say thin plastic bags are more difficult to quantify in litter surveys since they are easily blown from location to location and break down into much smaller pieces.
The bill has somewhat stalled in the Senate after being approved by its environment committee in September. Like most legislation, it has taken a backseat to two big issues being pushed by Murphy: raising the minimum wage to $15 and legalizing recreational marijuana.
But to environmentalists and much of the business community, it is still an issue that they’re preparing to battle over once other issues are resolved in Trenton.
“It’s definitely among our top issues to deal with this year,” said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, which lobbies on behalf of 75 chemical companies including those that supply plastic manufacturers. “The knee jerk reaction is to impose a ban. But there hasn’t been a good examination of the alternatives, and that’s what we’re going to focus our efforts on.”
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Towns take action
More than two dozen municipalities have recently passed ordinances that regulate some form of plastic sales, according to the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions.
Hoboken will become the largest municipality to ban flimsy plastic bags when its ordinance takes effect on Jan. 22.
But like most ordinances in New Jersey, it allows customers to buy a slightly thicker plastic bag for 10 cents that store owners say is reusable and can be cleaned.
Environmental advocates say the number of bags used by customers will still drop exponentially. “You’re no longer given an unlimited amount of bags away for free,” Weber said. “The fee will make a difference. It will start to change customers habits to the point where they’re bringing back their bags.”
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Plastic tote bags can be bought for a dollar at the city’s two main supermarkets: ShopRite and Acme.
The ShopRite will start a 10-day reminder on Jan. 12, with a countdown sign visible at the store and on the store’s Facebook page. Cashiers will also wear “Bring Your Own Bag” T-shirts and offer buy one, get one free on reusable totes.
Among the municipalities that recently passed a plastics ordinance is Leonia where the town council voted in December to ban polystyrene food and beverage containers within six months.
Town leaders were urged to do so by local Girl Scouts. Boy Scouts conducted a survey of the town’s two dozens restaurants and found the vast majority were okay with a ban, said Mayor Judah Zeigler.
“Back in the day there weren’t a lot of acceptable alternatives so it would have put an undue burden on business,” Zeigler said. “What’s available today for takeout is every bit as good and it breaks down.”
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