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plastic bag
New Jersey’s legislature has approved a far-reaching bill that would ban plastic bags, paper grocery bags and most polystyrene containers. FILE PHOTO

By ERIN ROLL and ANDREW GARDA
roll@montclairlocal.news
garda@montclairlocal.news

New Jersey will be following the lead of Montclair and at least 57 other towns in banning plastic carryout bags at stores and food-service businesses.

Paper grocery bags and polystyrene food containers would also be banned, and straw use would be limited.

On Thursday, Sept. 24, the state Assembly and Senate gave their approval to what would be one of the most stringent bans on plastic products and paper bags in the country. 

The bill, expected to be signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, will go into effect 18 months after its passage.

Since December of last year, Montclair has had its own ordinance prohibiting single-use plastic bags in large chain stores.

Originally Montclair’s law was intended to apply to any store over 2,500 square feet, but it was amended to encompass only stores that are over 20,000 square feet.

The state-level plastic bag ban applies to businesses of any size, while the paper bag ban applies only to grocery stores that occupy 2,500 square feet or more. 

Montclairians have been bringing their own reusable bags for a year and half when shopping in big-box stores, or purchasing single-use paper bags at a charge of 10 cents a bag.

Under the new law, stores and food services businesses would not be able to provide or sell single-use plastic or paper carryout bags.

The state law will supersede all county and local bag ordinances, including Montclair’s. 

SMALL BUSINESSES

The change last year by township officials from 2,500 to 20,000 square feet was made because small business owners felt that the single-use bags ban would be cost-prohibitive. The ordinance was amended so that large chain stores would be the focus of the bag ban.

At the Sept. 9 meeting of the Montclair Environmental Commission expansion of the ban to include smaller stores was discussed, with the consensus that any expansion of the ban would be put off due to the pandemic.

Montclair Environmental Commission Chairperson Lyle Landon said it was encouraging that the bill had passed both houses, since it previously stalled in the Assembly. 

Landon said the bill is structured so that small retailers are exempt from some of the requirements, which is in keeping with what Montclair small businesses wanted. She also noted that the bill prohibits the charging of fees for nonreusable bags. Montclair merchants objected to charging fees. 

The bill includes providing resources to help small businesses find alternatives to plastic bags and packaging, including a list of vendors that sell environmentally friendly packaging and an online list of guidance for businesses, which will help, Landon said. 

Montclair Center BID Executive Director Jason Gleason said that many ”forward-thinking Montclair Center businesses have already started using environmentally friendly materials and are encouraging reusable bags.”

After Clean Water Action started a campaign in 2018 to encourage businesses to stop offering plastic straws, many Montclair businesses complied and stopped using them, as well as single-use plastic utensils. 

Under the state bill, plastic straws must only be provided upon request at a restaurant or eatery. The rule does not apply to plastic straws included with prepackaged goods, such as juice boxes. 

Takeout containers are a key part of the issue in Montclair, said township sustainability officer Gray Russell. 

“Montclair is a big takeout town. We’re a foodie town,” Russell said about a focus on using takeout containers made from recycled and recyclable material. “Otherwise, they’re just creating more garbage, and that costs the town money to dispose of garbage. It’s definitely a remarkable piece of legislation. It puts New Jersey at the forefront of reducing single-use packaging.” 

Once the bill is signed, BID plans to work to educate the public and work with businesses to help them get into compliance.

The possible loss of revenue has not yet been a concern to merchants as it relates to the bag ban, but Gleason noted that businesses have been very focused on staying afloat. 

Paul Michael, of the Upper Montclair Business Association, declined to comment on the bill until he had a chance to review and discuss it with the rest of the association’s board. 

WAIVERS/VIOLATIONS

A business can apply for exemption from the polystyrene ban if it can demonstrate it has less than $500,000 in gross annual income and/or there is no reasonable alternative to polystyrene containers. 

The penalties for violating the law include a warning for a first offense, a fine up to $1,000 for a second offense, and a fine up to $5,000 for third or subsequent offenses. 

The bill also establishes a 16-member Plastics Advisory Council in the Department of Environmental Protection, including one representative for local government. 

Additionally, the bill voices support for New Jersey’s hemp-growing industry, as a provider of alternative material for bags and packaging. 

At least nine states — California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, New York, Washington, Delaware, Maine and Oregon — have enacted plastic bag bans since 2014, and at least 127 countries have laws regulating the use of plastic bags, ranging from incentives for shoppers to use reusable bags, to full bans on plastic bags. 

The law has been praised by organizations such as the New Jersey Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation. However, organizations such as the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, which represents plastics manufacturers, and the American Forest and Paper Association voiced their opposition to the bill. The New Jersey Food Council, which initially spoke out against the ban, has voiced its support for banning both single-use paper and plastic bags. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the group Clean Water Action.