Associations react to likely ban of bags (plastic and paper) and to-go containers — and it’s not what you might think

Bill, expected to be signed by Murphy, is cheered by Food Council, accepted by Restaurant Association

The most restrictive ban on plastic products and paper bags in the country is a signature away from becoming law in New Jersey.

Linda Doherty of the New Jersey Food Council, left, and Marilou Halvorsen of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association. (File photos)

The essence of the bill — a longstanding fight to ban all plastic bags and paper bags at grocery stores — is getting most of the attention. But other aspects, including a ban on clamshell food containers, plates, cups and utensils, could have just as big an impact.

First, the basics. The Assembly and state Senate passed a bill Thursday that its proponents say will dramatically curb the problem of plastic waste in the state — while getting residents into the habit of using their own reusable bags.

Gov. Phil Murphy indicated previously he’s likely to sign the bill.

Here’s what it will do:

  • Ban plastic bags, regardless of thickness, that are found at grocery stores and retail outlets, such as Walmart. It also bans paper bags at large grocery stores (more than 2,500 square feet);
  • Ban clamshell food containers and other products like plates, cups, food trays and utensils;
  • Make plastic straws at restaurants available only upon request.

Linda Doherty, the CEO of the New Jersey Food Council, has long pushed the ban on bags. Last fall, the Food Council introduced a “Choose to Reuse” campaign.

Doherty was pleased Thursday.

“The New Jersey Food Council has continually advocated for a uniform statewide standard, phasing out single-use plastic and paper bags and encouraging the use of reusable bags in New Jersey,” she said in a statement. “We are thankful to state lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature for today’s bill passage, following years of work and deliberation.

“This law will put an end to the proliferation of varying local ordinances. The current unworkable patchwork underscores the importance of having this smart, uniform statewide law that preempts all local ordinances.”

Doherty made sure to mention the ban on paper bags was important, too.

“They have just as significant of an environmental impact as plastic bags,” she said. “Without this ban, consumers would have simply moved to paper single-use bags, failing to address the underlying goal of reducing our reliance on single-use products.”

Heidi Brock of the American Forest & Paper Association. (AF&PA)

Heidi Brock, the CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, D.C., wasn’t happy at all. She said the law goes too far.

“The American Forest & Paper Association opposes bans on paper products and urges Gov. Phil Murphy to issue a conditional veto that removes paper from New Jersey’s bag ban,” she said in a statement. “In voting to become the first and only state in the nation to ban paper bags, the New Jersey Legislature has undermined an environmentally responsible option for consumers.”

Brock went on to discuss the potential economic impact of the bill.

“The ban on paper bags sends an alarming message in devaluing family wage jobs, which are often union labor, in addition to the indirect jobs supported by the paper and wood products industry in the state,” she said.

“Paper is part of the environmental solution, but New Jersey is treating it like the problem. Gov. Murphy should take action to ensure continued consumer access to a recyclable, reusable and compostable product — the paper bag.”

Stuck in the middle are the members of the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association.

Marilou Halvorsen, its CEO, said the association is committed to sustainability, noting it’s part of the platform of its chair, Marilyn Schlossbach. The question is how quickly members — already hurting by the reduction of indoor dining — can handle a change in their to-go containers.

“Our association is working on finding more sustainable vendors and products,” she told ROI-NJ. “But, with COVID-19 increasing the demand for single-use products, prices have increased substantially.

“We are trying to be more collaborative on sustainability.”

Doherty told ROI-NJ she’s confident that restaurants — and grocery stores that have fresh food options — will find alternatives.

“By the time these provisions go into place, we anticipate the supply industry will offer suitable and cost-effective alternatives,” she said.