Most retailers in New Jersey will be barred from handing out non-reusable plastic and paper bags to shoppers starting May 4. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)
A New Jersey law barring grocery stores from giving customers single-use paper and plastic bags went into effect Wednesday, marking a long-sought victory for environmentalists even as some call for the state to create more exemptions.
The measure, signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in November 2020, exempts food retailers with less than 2,500 square feet in store space from the paper bag prohibition, though they are still barred from dispensing single-use plastic bags.
“It is exciting and challenging,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “It doesn’t come easily, but we have the nation-leading law.”
Violators first face a warning, then a $1,000 fine that jumps to $5,000 for their third breach and any thereafter.
A prohibition on polystyrene food service products — that can include food containers, disposal plates, and single-use foam cups — also went into effect Wednesday, though certain polystyrene products are exempted from the ban for an additional two years. That means milkshake spoons, raw meat and fish trays, foods prepackaged with polystyrene, and certain small portion cups will remain available until May 2024.
The Department of Environmental Protection can add plastic items to the list of exemptions if it finds there is no non-plastic replacement that isn’t cost prohibitive. Such exemptions last for one year and can be extended.
The agency can also issue yearlong blanket exemptions to the bag and polystyrene food product bans to individuals, government entities, and businesses with less than $500,000 in annual gross income if replacement products are unaffordable or commercially unavailable. It can also issue exemptions if replacement products simply do not exist.
“It’s a good day for New Jersey and a good day for the health of New Jerseyans,” said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the bill’s prime sponsor. “People have a tendency — when they think about plastic problems — to think about first this new continent of plastic that’s in the Pacific Ocean, or the litter on the street. The message that hasn’t gotten through to people yet is the impact on their health.”
The law has already curtailed the use of single-use plastic straws. While they are not explicitly barred, the law since November 2021 has required restaurants to give plastic straws only to customers who request them.
Each of those provisions supersedes regulations enacted by local governments.
The law requires the DEP and Department of State create an educational campaign and, among other things, hand out free reusable bags.
Smith, who chairs the Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee, said he expects New Jerseyans to finish adjusting to the new bag rules in about two months.
Linda Doherty, president and CEO of the New Jersey Food Council, an industry group, said the 18-month runway to the law’s implementation gave the state’s grocery stores enough time to prepare. Retailers cooperated with a series of state agencies on a public information campaign that included radio and in-store announcements, she added.
It remains to be seen how the new rules affect an economy still strained by high inflation, rising gas prices, and unemployment that has yet to fall to pre-pandemic levels. Some businesses have planned ahead for the shift.
Elias Bitar, the owner of Norma’s Eastern Mediterranean Cuisine and a small adjacent grocery store in Cherry Hill, said his businesses stocked up on compostable and non-plastic containers in the months leading up to the bag ban but is still searching for suitable reusable takeout bags and might end up using reusable polypropylene bags allowed by the law.
“If that’s the only solution, that’s the only solution. We have to continue to do business,” Bitar said. “But I would always prefer to do something that’s actually going to make a difference, and not something that’s just paying lip service.”
Businesses are likely to face some higher costs, especially as a surge in demand for non-plastic containers and bags nudges up prices, but leftover inventories of single-use bags could also come with a price tag. Some large multi-state retailers have begun offloading disposable bag inventories to locations in states with looser restrictions, but that’s not an option for small businesses.
“What can we do with those? Put them over our heads? I don’t know,” Bitar said. “They’re just going to be put in storage. If there is an acceptable way to recycle them prior to use, we’ll do that. I think it’s just kind of a waiting game to see what happens.”
At least in the short term, the ban is likely to slightly hike prices for some residents who get their groceries through a delivery service because of added surcharges for reusable bags.
Though the Legislature in March approved an additional six-month grace period for food banks and pantries, no provisions have directly addressed delivery services.
Smith said he doesn’t believe lawmakers should rush to change the law again, noting only two state residents had reached out over the issue and adding retailers could use cardboard boxes to ferry out groceries, as bulk retailer Costco already does.
Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), another prime sponsor, said grocers could have come up with a better solution than charging delivery customers for reusable bags with each order.
“I don’t think they tried very hard to address this themselves, and quite frankly, it’s frustrating and disappointing. That’s just my own view,” he said. “The Band-Aid, so to speak, needs to be ripped off, and we need to open up this next chapter in our state and hopefully in our nation’s future as it relates to single-use plastics as well as paper.”
The Legislature will take another look at the bag ban, but that examination is years away, not months, Smith said.
“We’re going to give it two years,” he said. “You have to see how it operates first, but two years from now, we’re going to have a lot of data and information from New Jersey citizens, and I’m hoping that what we’re going to do in two years is get more plastics out of the stream of commerce. They’re killing us.”
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