New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has vetoed a statewide 5-cent fee on plastic and paper carryout bags, advocating instead for stronger efforts that some interpret as a push for banning plastic bags altogether.
New Jersey's Legislature had passed bills in June that would have required stores to charge a nickel a bag for plastic and paper, but Murphy, a Democrat, announced Aug. 27 that he was rejecting that approach and urging tougher action.
"As a society, we must break our dependence on single-use bags when going about our daily routines and instead commit ourselves to sustainable alternatives," Murphy said, arguing in his veto statement that while fees in places like the city of Washington D.C., have cut down on bag use, that's not enough.
"While these localized programs have generally been successful, the time has come for a more robust and comprehensive method of reducing the number of single-use bags in our state," he wrote.
He cited environmental problems, "particularly" from plastic bags, including litter on beaches and in natural areas, harm to wildlife and the pollution and negative impacts for drinking water and sewer systems caused by overuse of bags.
While Murphy's veto statement does not directly address bans, State Sen. Bob Smith (D), the chair of New Jersey's Environment and Energy Committee, told a recent hearing on plastic waste the veto means Murphy is leaning toward a ban.
"What we think that means is that the governor will be very sympathetic to the ban," Smith said.
Smith noted he and other legislators will be working on new legislation and hope to have it ready by October. Lawmakers are also debating restrictions on plastic straws and polystyrene foam packaging.
While industry representatives testified at the hearing that waste problems need broader solutions than single product bans, a representative of the Surfrider Foundation said New Jersey cities have passed a flurry of local bag ordinances this summer.
In May, only four cities in the state had bag laws, but since the legislation began moving through the state legislature, at least a dozen cities, including Jersey City and Hoboken, have now passed their own versions of bag restrictions, often outright bans, said John Weber, Mid-Atlantic regional manager with the San Clemente, Calif.-based foundation.
Others, including Newark, are considering similar local ordinances because they want to act before any state law that might restrict what city governments can do, he said.
Surfrider wants a hybrid system that would ban plastic bags and put a fee on paper bags, like what California does.
"People in New Jersey would prefer a ban to a fee," Weber said.
Industry representatives at the hearing, however, urged holistic solutions rather than outright product bans.
"While this impulse to act is understandable, we must acknowledge that we will not fundamentally solve the problem at its source through single-product restrictions," said Keith Christman, managing director of plastic markets at the American Chemistry Council. "We must improve our waste management systems."
He told the hearing, a joint meeting of the environment committees of the state Senate and Assembly, that the biggest sources of plastic marine litter were rapidly developing countries in Asia, places that don't have strong waste collection programs.
"Over half of the land-based plastics waste leaks from just five countries today: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam," Christman said.
He also urged the legislators to consider the role that plastics plays a reducing food waste, noting that discarded food makes up 22 percent of the waste going into landfills.
And he said policymakers need to consider the impact of alternative materials, which he said can have up to four times the environmental impacts of plastics.
Various business groups from New Jersey testified that the government should spend more on recycling education.
But a trade association for the state's grocery stores argued in favor of some form of statewide bag legislation.
The New Jersey Food Council, which represents 1,200 food stores and suppliers, had urged Murphy to sign the 5-cent fee legislation because a statewide system would be easier for retailers to comply with than a patchwork of different municipal rules.
It said it supported "carefully crafted" bag fees like those in Montgomery County, Md., or Suffolk County, N.Y., that "have the intended environmental benefit while having little negative impact on retailers or consumers."
Mary Ellen Peppard, the council's assistant vice president for government affairs, told the hearing that any legislation should also consider the higher price of paper bags and make note of their environmental footprint, including the "significant carbon impact" of paper bags.
She said 16 communities in New Jersey have enacted their own bag laws, with 10 more pending.
Another council representative told the legislators that paper bags can be 10 times heavier than plastic bags and take up 10 times as much space in stores.