New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Nov. 4 signed into law a ban on retail bags and expanded polystyrene foodservice containers and cups, a measure his office called the country's strongest ban on bags.
The law bans both plastic and paper single-use bags from stores and foodservice businesses starting in May 2022, as well as requiring restaurants to provide plastic straws only upon request, starting in November 2021.
The signing caps a two-year fight over the legislation, after Murphy vetoed a more limited version in 2018 that would have put a 5-cent fee on both plastic and paper bags. At the time, he called that measure too weak and said he wanted something more comprehensive.
In a Nov. 4 statement, he focused on climate change impacts and plastic in waterways.
"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," Murphy said. "With today's historic bill signing, we are addressing the problem of plastic pollution head-on with solutions that will help mitigate climate change and strengthen our environment for future generations."
Advocates for the law argued that support had been building for several years, with 130 communities in New Jersey already passing their own local single-use plastics laws, including nearly 40 local bag bans.
"This would never have happened without broad public support and local governments first adopting their own plastic reduction laws," said Judith Enck, president of the environmental group Beyond Plastics and former Region 2 administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. That region includes New Jersey.
The law drew sharp criticism from the plastic and paper industries, with the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance saying it will force businesses to use more expensive bags and hurt their bottom line while they're struggling with the economic impact of COVID-19.
"Banning plastic bags puts additional, unnecessary pressure on struggling small businesses and imperils their capacity to recover from the economic challenges the pandemic has caused," said Zachary Taylor, director of the ARPBA. "The ban forces businesses to procure and provide bags that are much more expensive — if they can be acquired at all — and ironically, also worse for the environment.
"Consumers will see higher prices and manufacturing jobs across the state will be at risk," he said.
The American Forest and Paper Association said New Jersey is the only state in the country that has banned paper bags.
The law also bans disposable EPS foodservice containers and cups, starting in May 2022.
It includes an additional two-year exemption from the ban for various EPS foodservice products, including trays for packaged meat and fish, any foodservice product pre-packaged by the manufacturer and portion cups smaller than 2 ounces, if used for food requiring lids.
One environmental group said there are recycling challenges with EPS.
"Plastic and polystyrene items we use for 15 minutes should not end up in our environment and communities for endless generations," said Doug O'Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. "Polystyrene cannot be cost-effectively recycled on a mass scale, and we need to transition to reusable bags."
But a group representing the polystyrene packaging industry said the EPS ban could double costs for restaurants and it predicted alternatives would have a higher environmental impact, since EPS packaging is 90 percent air.
The Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group within the American Chemistry Council said that a similar ban in New York City showed that alternatives cost nearly twice that of EPS foam.
"In an industry with razor-sharp profit margins and already hurting because of COVID-19, these costs will negatively impact New Jersey consumers, restaurants, smaller businesses and grocery stories," said Omar Terrie, director of PFPG.
Another environmental group said the law would conserve resources.
"This nation-leading single-use plastics and paper reduction policy will do exactly what we need it to: reduce the 4.4 billion single-use plastic and 1,300 football fields of trees worth of paper bags that New Jerseyans use every year," said Ed Potosnak, executive director with the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.
The bag and EPS food packaging ban comes as New Jersey state legislators are also debating what would be one of the country's strictest proposals around recycled content mandates in plastic products.