Lawmakers weigh six-month bag ban delay for food pantries

By: - March 17, 2022 6:55 am

Stores must stop providing plastic bags to customers starting May 4. (New Jersey Monitor)

New Jersey’s ban on disposable plastic bags is set to go into effect in May, but the state’s food banks and pantries could be exempted from those rules for a while longer.

On Thursday, the Assembly State and Local Government Committee will weigh a bill exempting the aid organizations from the law for an additional six months. The bill would also require the Department of Environmental Protection to give 500,000 reusable bags to food assistance organizations.

“The demand for food assistance persists, and so what this legislation does is balance the desire to become a more environmentally friendly state with our ability to support organizations which continue to be critical in keeping people fed,” said Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), the bill’s prime sponsor.

In late 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy signed the state’s disposable bag ban into law. The measure will bar stores from providing customers with single-use plastic bags and prohibit grocery stores from giving their customers disposable paper bags. Food retailers with store space of less than 2,500 square feet can still use paper bags, allowing small stores like bodegas to keep using them.

The ban is set to go into effect on May 4, though some disposable plastics — including polystyrene meat and fish trays, milkshake spoons, and other items flagged by the Department of Environmental Protection — will be allowed until May 2024.

Robin Peacock, the executive director of Mend, a nonprofit that provides support to and coordinates with food pantry leaders in Essex County, said she believes a six-month delay would allow for a smoother transition away from procedures meant to defray the risks of COVID-19 transmission that rely on disposable bags.

“There’re some pantries that aren’t even really interacting face-to-face with patrons,” she said. “It’s drive up, put bags, and then go. So, additional time would be most welcome for this particular group of stakeholders because I think it is something that is definitely putting a strain on their work right now.”

Disposable bags work best for that model, but reusable bags are a good fit for pantries that allow patrons to pick specific items, she said.

The free bags the bill would provide are also welcome, Peacock said, noting the provision could keep much-needed funds with pantries.

“Right now, we’re spending a lot of money on plastic bags, and no one really likes that, so having reusable bags would be great,” she said. “The challenge is in communicating to folks to bring them back.”

The 500,000 reusable bags would be provided through a Department of Environmental Protection informational program required by the bag ban law.

“By creating this extension in addition to distributing 500,000 reusable bags, we’re providing both the time and resources we recognize pantries facing high demand need in order to be successful in making the shift without leaving food-insecure families behind,” Coughlin said.

A provision in Coughlin’s bill expanding the definition of reusable bags to include recyclable polyethylene bags will be removed by amendment Thursday morning, the Assembly Majority Office said. They expect a companion bill to be introduced in the Senate next week.

The bag ban was among the most-lobbied bills of the 219th legislative session. Environmental advocates urged lawmakers to adopt the ban, while paper and plastic industry groups warned the measure would pass new costs onto consumers.

Coughlin’s bill appears unlikely to stir such controversy.

“We support the legislation and appreciate the speaker and the bill sponsors’ efforts to provide a limited extension of time for food bank and pantries to distribute reusable bags to ensure the families they serve are fed,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, a plastics industry group, did not return a call seeking comment.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.