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Plastic Bag Ban Receives Little Attention from Businesses

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By Bill Barlow

COURT HOUSE – Among 2020’s many lessons, Americans have learned that a lot can change in a short time.  

New Jersey endured a devastating pandemic, and with it, restrictions on daily life that would have once seemed unthinkable. Face masks have become commonplace, sometimes even a fashion statement, and next year, marijuana will be legal for adults after a vote to amend the state constitution that would have seemed impossible a decade ago.  

On the national stage, longstanding norms and precedents were challenged or tossed aside with numbing regularity.  

Maybe it should be no surprise that a new law with sweeping significance received little notice or discussion.  

Gov. Phil Murphy Nov. 4 signed into law a ban on single-use plastic and paper bags in all stores and food service businesses in New Jersey, in what has been described as the most stringent such ban in the nation. 

As the new restrictions are phased in, restaurants and other food service companies will no longer be  permitted to use polystyrene containers, the generic term for lightweight plastic foam, often described with the brand name Styrofoam.  

Many of the conditions will go into effect in May 2022, while the first step starts in November 2021. At that point, food service businesses will only be allowed to provide single-use plastic straws on request.  

The focus will be on increasing the use of reusable bags, according to Murphy’s office.  

Some businesses and industry groups opposed the law. In Cape May County, Vicki Clark, president, Cape May County Chamber of Commerce said she has not heard much about the ban from local businesses.  

In some cases, businesses have already adjusted, with plastic bag bans in place in Cape May, Stone Harbor, and Avalon, but mostly, she suggested, owners likely have more urgent priorities than something that will take effect in 18 months.  

“Quite honestly, businesses are dealing with a lot more pressing issues,” she said. “Maybe they just haven’t grasped the reality. They have a lot on their plates right now. They may not yet realize the magnitude of the change.”  

It would be hard to blame them, she said, as the county’s seasonal businesses face an uncertain future, with few answers on the potential for further federal business bailouts and new restrictions coming into place as COVID-19 infections continue to rise in New Jersey and around the nation.  

“They’re worrying about how they’re going to get through the winter,” she said.  

All the more reason to hold off on so extensive a ban, argues Assemblyman Antwan McClellan (R-1st). He joined his fellow Republican representatives of the 1st District, Sen. Michael Testa and Assemblyman Erik Simonsen, in voting no on the law.  

McClellan said the team supports reducing the use of plastics and would be willing to consider a single-use bag ban, but he argued that there were problems with the bill, including the inclusion of paper bags. He said the sponsors did not take into consideration the effect on a struggling economy.  

“With COVID, a lot of businesses are struggling as it is. Why give them one more problem this year?” McClellan said. “It’s definitely a bad time.”  

The law will also hit schools, he said, and non-profit organizations that help feed the homeless. Both use polystyrene containers in some instances.  

Industry groups have used the pandemic and the economic impact to argue against bag bans. Some have argued that reusable bags may not be as hygienic, or that the ban will hurt an already sputtering economy.  

“Bag bans place an additional and unnecessary pressure on struggling businesses and, in many cases, imperils their capacity to recover from the economic challenges brought on by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” reads a prepared statement from Zachary Taylor, the director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, a group that has opposed bag bans.  

“Bans, like New Jersey’s, force businesses to procure bags that are significantly more expensive – if they can be acquired at all – and, ironically, also worse for the environment. Moreover, bans put manufacturing jobs across the country – including many in the Garden State – at risk and increase costs for consumers,” the statement continued. 

The group cited data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showing plastic bags make up a tiny fraction of the waste in landfills, and studies that say grocery store bags make up a small amount of the litter found throughout the nation.  

However, solid waste managers say plastic bags are a persistent headache in recycling systems, snarling machinery and causing other problems. In previous interviews, officials in Avalon said there is a noticeable difference in the amount of litter in town, the bay and the ocean since the local ban took effect.  

Environmental groups welcome the change. Representatives of Clean Ocean Action, the Surfrider Foundation, Environment New Jersey, the New Jersey Sierra Club, and other advocacy groups released enthusiastic statements praising the new law.  

“This is the most comprehensive and strongest plastic bill in the nation,” stated Jeff Tittel, of the Sierra Club. “This new law will protect New Jersey from plastic that not only hurts the environment but also endangers our wildlife and public health. It will go a long way in our battle against plastics.”  

“It’s a good day for marine critters and the power of the people,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director, Clean Ocean Action (COA). “For over 35 years, thousands of COA’s beach sweep volunteers have collected over 7.2 million pieces of trash, mostly plastic, off New Jersey’s beaches. Thanks to Gov. Murphy and the New Jersey Legislature, we’ve successfully drawn a line in the sand and made New Jersey a world leader in reducing the plastic plague on this marvel of a planet.” 

Murphy said the ban would help mitigate climate change and strengthen the environment.  

“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,” he said, in a prepared statement.  

Some of the businesses that use the most bags in Cape May County had the least to say.  Acme Markets, Wawa, or Walmart representatives didn’t immediately respond to requests for an interview on their plans to comply with the law, or to discuss its potential impact. Acme and Wawa have multiple locations in Cape May County, and there is a single Walmart Supercenter.   

Statistics cited in a Penn State University report state that trillions of bags are manufactured each year, and the average American family will take home almost 1,500 annually.  

At the chamber, Clark said many local businesses have taken voluntary steps to reduce the use of plastics, because of interest from consumers and their personal priorities.  

“For Cape May County, we depend on the environment for our economy. It really is very necessary that we protect the ocean waters and the whales and dolphins and all of the sea life that live in our waters,” she said. 

The biggest impact will be on restaurants, she said, which this year relied on takeout sales more than ever. As temperatures drop and inside dining, again, becomes a potential safety issue, she questioned the timing of the approval of the law, which was under discussion for years.  

“The restaurant industry is really suffering, and there seems to be no end in sight with the COVID restrictions,” she said. 

To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com. 

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