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New Jersey’s push to curb plastic pollution is in jeopardy and paper is to blame

ban plastic products

An 18-month effort to pass one of the nation’s most stringent set of regulations to curb plastic pollution by banning most retail store bags, foam food containers, some utensils and plastic straws appears to have fizzled out as Trenton reaches its legislative deadline on Monday.

And the culprit, ironically, is paper.

The Senate, Assembly and governor’s office were at a stalemate late last week over a portion of the bill that also bans paper bags at grocery stores and other retail establishments.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill on Monday, the last day of voting in this legislative session. The Assembly had not posted the bill for a vote by Friday afternoon. And Gov. Phil Murphy’s representatives have expressed reservations about signing the bill if it is passed as is.

None of the sides would speak publicly about the issue. But several people close to the negotiations said it has played out like this:

  • All sides, at least publicly, support the bans on plastic products, which account for a sizeable amount of litter, especially on New Jersey’s beaches and riverfronts.
  • But Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Murphy believe a ban on paper bags goes too far and would specifically hurt low-income shoppers.
  • And Senate President Steve Sweeney does not want to impose a fee on paper bags – something Republicans may use as campaign fodder against Democrats.
Murphy and Sweeney, both Democrats, have become political foes with several legislative standoffs over the past two years.

When asked Thursday about the conflict with the governor’s office over the plastic bill, Sweeney responded: “Is that a shock?”

Sweeney said the bill is a good compromise because it phases in the bans over two years. “It’s time to move forward and that’s why we intend to pass it,” he said of the impending vote Monday.

The plastics bill is not the only environmental measure that may not get passed this legislative session.

The Assembly has not posted the Liberty State Park Protection Act, which appears to be derailed because of a billionaire’s desire to expand his ultra-exclusive golf course into the park’s Caven Point natural area.

The Assembly also has not posted a bill already passed by the Senate that would would require railroads to develop oil spill response plans in case of a derailment and increase transparency from railroads about their shipments of flammable liquids through the state.

The plastics bill — S2776 — would ban film plastic bags regardless of thickness and paper bags in an effort to get shoppers to bring their own reusable bags like the woven plastic tote bags with handles.

It would also ban clamshell food containers, plates, cups, food trays and utensils made out of polystyrene foam.

Plastic straws would only be available upon request at restaurants — something advocates for the disabled have long pushed for.

All local bans would stay in effect until the statewide ban kicked in. The New Jersey Food Council, which represents supermarkets, had supported most aspects of the bill, preferring a statewide mandate rather than a patchwork of town-by-town ordinances.

Many environmental advocates said last week they were disappointed by the stalemate and were not hopeful that a compromise could be reached by Monday.

Plastic pollution is a growing problem in New Jersey. More than 80 percent of 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.

Many environmentalists were fine with either a ban or a fee on paper bags. “Paper is not why we’re doing this,” said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Plastic has always been the reason. We’re not pulling paper bags out of dead turtles.”

Many are now resigned to restarting the bill-making process in the new two-year legislative session that begins later this week.

“The bill would have reduced “single-use plastics from entering our waterways, harming wildlife, and contaminating our drinking water source,” said Sandra Meola, director of the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed. “New Jersey’s neighbors New York and Delaware, along with several other states across the country, have already taken action against the critical plastic pollution problem.”


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