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New Jersey’s proposed plastic, paper bag ban has been resurrected, but will it become law?

ban paper bags

The path toward enacting the nation’s strictest set of plastics regulations in New Jersey has been long, winding and filled with potholes that sometimes resemble craters.

Supporters hope that is coming to an end.

A statewide plastics ban is back to where it was last legislative session: The Senate passed an almost identical bill last week that bans plastic and paper carryout bags and places restrictions on plastic straws and many polystyrene products.

The question is whether the bill will continue to receive the same lukewarm reception from the Assembly and Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.

The bill is an effort to cut down on plastic pollution, which inundates New Jersey’s beaches, riverfronts and waterways.

The bill has three major components:

  • It bans film plastic bags, like those found at grocery stores, regardless of thickness. It also bans paper bags in an effort to get shoppers to bring their own reusable bags, like woven plastic tote bags with handles.
  • It bans polystyrene clamshell food containers, plates, cups, food trays and utensils.
  • Plastic straws would be available only upon request at restaurants — something advocates for the disabled have long pushed for.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Murphy were opposed to a ban on paper bags for a variety of reasons, including concerns that it could hurt low-income shoppers. Coughlin did not post the bill last session.

But Coughlin, D-Middlesex, seemed to show support for some major aspects of the bill in a radio interview last month, while still expressing some concern about a paper bag ban and the time frame for implementation.

“When we look at the best ways to stick up for the planet, the reusable bags are the way to go,” he said to 1450 WCTC.

Cecilia Williams, a spokeswoman for Coughlin, said Monday that his comments on the radio still stand and “he is still in discussions with the sponsors and stakeholders.”

Assemblywoman Nancy Pinkin, who heads the Assembly Environment Committee, said Monday that she would like Coughlin, Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney to iron out their differences — especially on paper bags — before holding a hearing on the bill.

“We’re still working it out,” said Pinkin, D-Middlesex.

At a legislative hearing in January, lobbyists for the plastics industry seemed to concede that the very thin grocery store bags were going to be banned, and instead concentrated their efforts on trying to convince lawmakers that slightly thicker plastic film bags should be allowed.

The thicker bags have been allowed in California and New York due to loopholes in supposed statewide “bans.” Hoboken banned the thicker bags — sold at many stores for 10 cents — this week after allowing them for more than a year.

While environmental advocates say they’re willing to concede on a ban on paper bags to ensure the other provisions in the bill, they are not willing to allow thicker bags.

Advocates are optimistic that a strong version of the bill will pass in the coming months as more and more towns pass their own measures.

“We’re in a better place now in March than we were in January,” said David Pringle, a spokesman for the advocacy group Clean Water Action. “Sure, we’re skeptical until it gets done. But momentum is on our side to the point where it becomes not a question of if, but a question of when.”

Plastic litter

Hundreds of volunteers with Clean Ocean Action pick up litter twice a year from New Jersey’s 130-mile coastline from Cape May to Sandy Hook. Last year the beach sweeps netted:

  • 20,069 plastic bags.
  • 35,124 straws.
  • 6,067 foam food containers.
  • 25,630 foam pieces.
Source: Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action.

Exempt bags

These would not be banned under the latest bill making its way through Trenton:

  • Bags to contain or wrap uncooked meat, fish, or poultry.
  • Bags to package loose items such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, grains, baked goods, candy, greeting cards,
  • flowers or small hardware items.
  • Bags to contain live animals, such as fish or insects sold in a pet store.
  • Bags to contain food sliced or prepared to order, including soup or hot food.
  • Dry cleaning bags.
  • Bags for prescription drugs.
  • Newspaper delivery bags.
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