How Late Amendments Have Stalled Effort to Ban Plastic, Paper Bags

TOM JOHNSON | DECEMBER 11, 2019 

NJ Spotlight

A different version of the bill won legislative approval last year, but was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Phil Murphy, who wanted a stronger bill.

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It might take a bit longer to win passage of a bill touted as the nation’s most comprehensive effort to ban single-use plastic and paper bags and other plastics in New Jersey.

The legislation (SCS-2776) unexpectedly was pulled from a vote by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee on Monday, a step both advocates and foes agreed was spurred by late amendments adopted last week when the measure moved out of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

The critical amendments called for a ban on both plastic and paper single-use bags one year from enactment, as well as a surprise provision that big-chain grocery stores provide free reusable bags for two months after the law takes effect. Previously, the bill would have waited two years before paper bags were banned.

With only a month left in the lame-duck legislative session, it is unclear whether the dispute over the late amendments will prevent the bill’s passage before a new Legislature is sworn in early in January. The issue has been a top priority of the state’s fractured environmental community for years. A different version of the bill won legislative approval last year, but was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Phil Murphy, who wanted a stronger bill.

“What we’ve done with this bill is unite the entire business community against us,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey Sierra Club, referring to the latest amendments that seemed to halt momentum for passage of the measure.

The bill also would ban polystyrene foam cups and other containers, a provision opposed by the businesses in that sector, who have argued the state should allow recycling of such containers as currently occurs in four counties in New Jersey. Under the bill, plastic straws would only be available to customers who request them.

“We think they are missing an opportunity,’’ said Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, noting the sector has offered to provide $25 million a year to promote recycling of polystyrene.

Looking for consensus

Despite the controversy over the late changes to the bill, advocates on both sides of the issue note that legislative leaders and others are discussing how to reach a consensus, possibly by providing a funding source for grocery stores that have to provide free reusable bags for customers.

“Inevitably, the plastic bag ban is going to happen,’’ suggested Michael Egenton, executive vice president for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

Linda Doherty, president and CEO of the New Jersey Food Council, agreed. “We believe there is still an opportunity to get this done and we remain committed to defining a statewide solution to ban both plastic and paper single use bags,’’ she said.

“It is not an unsolvable problem,’’ added Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, who said her organization firmly supports the bill as now written. “Any changes in the bill would fly in the face of what science dictates.’’

There is clearly a groundswell of public support for the ban, which conservationists argue would help improve water quality and impact fish and other marine life. More than 50 communities have passed ordinances to reduce the use of plastic bags and other plastic products. A statewide law would establish one single standard.

“We need a comprehensive statewide solution,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

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