In early November, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed into law the strongest measure against single use-plastics in the nation. Starting in May 2022, the law will prohibit all stores and food-service businesses statewide from using single-use plastic and paper bags, as well as disposable food containers and cups made out of polystyrene foam. Some states impose a fee on paper bags, but this law will make New Jersey the first state to entirely ban paper bags.
“Plastic bags are one of the most problematic forms of garbage, leading to millions of discarded bags that stream annually into our landfills, rivers, and oceans,” Governor Murphy said in a statement. “With today’s historic bill signing, we are addressing the problem of plastic pollution head-on with solutions that will help mitigate climate change and strengthen our environment for future generations.” He also said that this is a “significant step” by the state to reduce harmful effects of pollution on the environment.
The ban applies to a range of businesses, such as restaurants, convenience stores, food trucks, movie theaters, and grocery stores that are over 2,500 square feet. There are several exemptions to the law, however, including bags used for wrapping raw meat, holding loose produce items, or carrying prescription drugs. The new law also restricts food-service businesses from handing out plastic straws, unless specifically requested by a customer, beginning in November 2021.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be responsible for overseeing these regulations. Businesses that break these rules may be given a warning for the first violation, a $1,000 fine for the second violation, and $5,000 fines for the third violation and every subsequent violation. Revenue from these fines will go towards the Clean Communities Program Fund, which pays for litter clean-up grants across New Jersey. However, the DEP reserves the authority to give businesses waivers for some kinds of economic hardships. The law will also create a new Plastics Advisory Council within the DEP, which will monitor the implementation of the regulations and study plastic waste in New Jersey.
“From our cities to our shores, single-use plastic bags unnecessarily litter New Jersey’s most treasured spaces and pollute our ecosystems,” DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe said. “By banning single-use plastic bags, Gov. Murphy and our legislature continue to make New Jersey a national leader in environmental protection and the DEP stands ready to implement these new measures and educate the public.”
Prior to this law, numerous towns and counties across New Jersey had already passed restrictions on plastic bags, straws, and polystyrene food containers. Those measures will stay in place until the new statewide regulations become effective. There have also been previous attempts to curb single-use plastics on a state level in New Jersey for the past few years. For example, state lawmakers passed a tax on plastic and paper bags in 2018, but Governor Murphy vetoed that measure because he did not believe it was strong enough.
Despite the praise that this law is receiving from environmental advocates, some New Jersey residents and business owners are concerned about the complications that it will create. Some worry that this law will negatively impact manufacturing plants and harm workers in the plastic manufacturing industry during a time of economic recession. Others argue that this law overlooks people who order groceries online, through services like Instacart, for accessibility reasons. This also raises questions of equity for people who may not be able to afford reusable bags, or for customers who simply forget to bring bags with them. The law does partially address these criticisms by allocating $500,000 per year toward handing out free reusable bags and funding a public education campaign, but many suggest that doesn’t solve their concerns entirely. Since the law is not going into effect until May 2022, however, New Jersey residents have some time to adjust to the new mandate.
There is some research studying the effectiveness of bag bans. A 2011 research paper by the Northern Ireland Assembly found that it takes more than four times as much energy to manufacture a paper bag as it does to manufacture a plastic bag. The Environment Agency in the U.K. also released a report in 2011 that shows that a cotton bag would need to be used 131 times to have a lower effect on the climate than a plastic bag. However, this does not mean that plastic bags are off the hook. Plastic bags still pose a deadly threat to life in marine and land ecosystems, and they must be burned or buried, even after being recycled a few times, according to the Conservation Law Foundation.
Banning single-use plastic bags is a small but critical first step towards tackling the plastic pollution crisis, and this step has been taken by several states across the nation. By banning paper bags as well, New Jersey lawmakers have signaled that they want the state to move away from single-use materials on a larger scale.
Hite, John. “The Truth about Plastic Bag Bans.” Conservation Law Foundation, 24 June 2020, www.clf.org/blog/the-truth-about-plastic-bag-bans/.
Edgington, Tom. “Plastic or Paper: Which Bag Is Greener?” BBC News, BBC, 28 Jan. 2019, www.bbc.com/news/business-47027792.
Genovese, Daniella. “NJ Governor Signs Strict Single-Use Paper, Plastic Bag Ban into Law.” Fox Business, Fox Business, 5 Nov. 2020, www.foxbusiness.com/lifestyle/nj-plastic-paper-bag-ban.
Sol Warren, Michael. “Plastic Bags Banned in N.J. as Murphy Signs New Law.” Nj, 5 Nov. 2020, www.nj.com/news/2020/11/plastic-bags-banned-in-nj-as-murphy-signs-new-law.html.