Scroll Top

The plastic bag ban is sensible, practical and only the first step | Opinion

Senators Bob Smith & Linda Greenstein | October 15, 2020 | The Star-Ledger |

New Jersey, the Garden State, possesses its own particular kind of beauty, from our glorious forests and rolling hills, recreation areas and hiking trails, to our waterways and our celebrated Jersey Shore. In the last couple of decades, however, as a result of thoughtless littering and a flood of discarded plastic bags, New Jersey’s natural beauty, not to mention its ecological and environmental health, has fallen prey to an avalanche of plastics pollution.

This is why New Jersey’s Democratic Senate majority led the way in developing a multi-pronged piece of legislation that begins to push back against the withering assault of plastics pollution on our state and protects our general collective health. We did so by passing legislation banning single-use plastic bags and other disposable products, including polystyrene, legislation that is the most comprehensive and among the toughest of its kind in the nation.

While we will continue to press forward with other efforts to reduce our dependence on plastics and other harmful packaging and containers that adversely affect our state and to encourage better, more efficient recycling, it is important to pause and reflect on what this long-sought landmark environmental legislation achieves for New Jersey.

We passed this bill, along with our colleagues in the Assembly, because single-use plastics pose a grave environmental threat to our state, our wildlife, our biosphere and our people. Such plastics are made from fossil fuels, used once, then end up in already overcrowded landfills, or worse, on our city streets and sidewalks, in drains, or perhaps most dangerously, into the ocean. Research has shown that plastic fragments, or microplastics, continue to enter our ocean and rivers at alarming rates, and often end up in the food cycle – which means they end up in our bodies.

Recent history shows that such bans are effective. A similar plastic bag ban in Los Angeles, for example, resulted in a 94% drop in single-use bags.

Opponents argue that it will unnecessarily harm some manufacturers or grocery store chains, but the truth is that plastic and paper manufacturers and large-scale groceries have already begun to reform their own practices. They see the future, with its trend toward greater sustainability. What’s more, the bill includes several exemptions, and we did extensive research to determine that there are greener alternatives commercially available to single-use plastics.

Crucially, the legislation also places New Jersey’s single-use plastic bag bans under a single umbrella. Over the last several years, many towns in the state, including many communities on the Jersey Shore, have taken a proactive approach when it comes to this problem, ushering in their own various plastic bag prohibitions. Indeed, one doesn’t have to be a regular Shore visitor to have noticed the ugliness of plastic debris washed up on our beaches, creating not only an eyesore but an ecological hazard to both marine life and shore birds.

The ban will be phased in over 18 months after enactment. When fully implemented, it will prohibit any store or food service business from providing or selling single-use plastic bags for transporting groceries, prepared foods or retail goods. It also prohibits the use of polystyrene products such as clam shell-type food containers. The legislation prohibits grocery stores and large convenience stores (over 2,500 square feet) from providing or selling carryout paper bags. The ban on paper bags does not include common retail or fast food stores, and paper bags will still be permitted for use by other businesses in the state.

Of course, this sensible and practical measure, as comprehensive as it is, should be only the beginning of our campaign to rid our landscape and streams of plastics, and to reduce the amount of litter that ends up in our landfills.

That’s why we are also pushing newly introduced legislation to require some containers – including those made of plastic and glass, as well as paper bags and reusable bags – to be manufactured with a minimum amount of recycled materials. Under this plan, any plastic or glass containers sold or used in New Jersey would be required to contain at least 35% recycled material. Among other provisions, this measure would also prohibit the sale of polystyrene loose fill packaging, commonly known as “packing peanuts.”

We realize such measures are works in progress and may need to be adapted in one way or another before being fully implemented, but it is critical that we continue to build on our success in passing landmark legislation that bans single-use plastic bags in New Jersey. We cannot stop now, and we cannot abdicate our responsibility to our environment and to our general collective health. We must continue to search for new ways to fight for a cleaner, more sustainable and more environmentally just future for our children and our grandchildren.