The statewide movement to prohibit single-use plastic bags has grown since it started four years ago in Jersey Shore municipalities. The additional motivation to prevent bags from contributing to the ocean’s plastic pollution crisis prompted several towns to ban stores from providing carryout bags — including Avalon, Beach Haven, Brigantine, Harvey Cedars, Long Beach Township, Longport and Stafford Township.
Last month, Somers Point joined them, changing its ordinance that allowed customers to purchase plastic bags for 5 cents each to prohibiting stores from providing them as of next year. Many shoppers will be affected, since the city hosts a ShopRite that is the region’s largest-volume supermarket and an Acme.
The council vote for the ban was close, with opponents suggesting the city should let the state proceed with its development of a ban on single-use plastic bags. That view got some support two weeks later when the state Senate Environment and Energy Committee approved a comprehensive and detailed ban on single-use plastics.
The new version of the bill prohibits carryout bags made of plastic film, polystyrene foam food service products and single-use plastic straws. It would still allow stores to provide paper bags, but would assess a 5-cent fee for them.
This would be a dramatic step forward in reducing plastic waste, putting New Jersey in the forefront on the issue along with states that have banned plastic bags such as California and New York.
In general, not only throwaway plastic shopping bags would be gone, but also the plastic clamshells for sandwiches and other takeout food, plastic foam cups for takeout beverages, and plastic straws for nearly everyone. About 4.4 billion plastic bags alone currently are distributed in New Jersey each year.
Change on this scale is complex, and the bill details many specifics and exceptions to make the ban reasonable and enforceable. Foam trays will still be allowed for the sale of meat and fish, for example, as well as portion cups of 2 ounces or less for food accompaniments — but the exemption will only last one year, time enough to develop nonplastic alternatives for these too.
The bill would allow stores to sell or provide, besides the typical woven plastic or cloth reusable bags, plastic film bags that are at least 10 mils thick (or 10 thousandths of an inch). That's 20 times thicker than the shopping bags currently provided free, which are about 0.5 mils. Since 10-mil shopping bags aren't even made today, they're likely to be reusable if they do appear.
All aspects of the plastics ban will be monitored after the law is enacted by a Plastics Advisory Council to be created within the Department of Environmental Protection. Besides the commissioners of the DEP and the Health Department, the council would include four members from the environmental community, four from the food-service and retail industries, two academics and one each from the recycling industry and local governments. Within a year it must report on the law’s effectiveness and recommend changes.
The paper bag fees — as well as fines for violations of $500 to $5,000 — will go into a Plastic Pollution Prevention Fund to help develop the state’s recycling industry and advance public participation in efforts to limit plastic pollution.
The bill’s approach looks about right, including the absence of a talked-about ban on paper carryout bags as well. It may be appropriate to prohibit those someday, but the urgent need now is to greatly reduce plastic bags and make the rules consistent throughout New Jersey.
It’s a big improvement over the Legislature’s proposal last year to keep allowing single-use bags and charge a fee for them (possibly giving the state $100 million or more a year in new revenue). Gov. Murphy vetoed that and told legislators to come back with a stricter ban on single-use plastics, so he gets considerable credit for the bill advancing in the Senate.
Until that becomes law, municipalities should go ahead, like Somers Point, and join the trend toward banning single-use plastic bags. It can only help the environment and maintain pressure on state government to enact a uniform ban.