New Jersey has banned plastic bags and utensils, polystyrene foam containers… and even paper bags. And truth be told, it could afford to be even stricter.

New Jersey’s big ban

Were you impressed by Maryland’s announcement that it was to become the first state to ban polystyrene foam containers as of October 1? New Jersey’s response: Maryland, hold my beer.

Last week, the Garden State’s state legislature voted to ban both plastic and paper single-use bags, and polystyrene foam food containers, plates, cups, and utensils. It’s the most wide-ranging ban on plastic products and paper bags in the US.

The ban would begin 18 months after the bill goes into effect, and Governor Philip Murphy is expected to sign the bill. Businesses that violate the bill would get a warning on first offense, a fine up to $1,000 for a second offense, and a fine of up to $5,000 for a third or subsequent offense.

And it’s probably not a shock to hear that polystyrene, plastic, and paper bag manufacturers aren’t jumping up and down with glee.

The exceptions

If you think New Jersey is being draconian, note that there are exemptions. The New Jersey Herald breaks down the details of what’s still going to be allowed, and it really gets you thinking:

  • Restaurants would be allowed to provide a plastic straw to a customer upon request for one year after the law is signed.
  • Reusable plastic carryout bags with stitched handles that many supermarket chains sell at checkout lines for about $1.
  • Bags used solely for uncooked meat, fish, or poultry
  • Bags used solely for loose items such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, grains, baked goods, candy, greeting cards, flowers, or small hardware
  • Bags used solely to contain live animals, such as fish
  • Bags used solely to contain food sliced or prepared to order, including soup or hot food
  • A laundry, dry cleaning, or garment bag
  • Bags carrying prescription drugs
  • A newspaper bag
  • Disposable, long-handled polystyrene foam spoons for thick drinks
  • Small cups of two ounces or less used for hot foods
  • Trays for raw meat, poultry, or fish commonly found at supermarkets
  • Any food pre-packaged in polystyrene by the manufacturer, such as ramen noodles

Electrek’s Take

Looking at the above exemption list, some make sense and others don’t. (If you’re going to buy a goldfish, I guess you could bring your own goldfish bowl to fetch “Cleo”? … Hmmm.) Fruit and vegetables can be put into reusable mesh bags — they’re cheap, easy to purchase, and no harder to remember to take to the store than your bigger grocery bags. There are reusable straws.

As Electrek stated yesterday, cardboard and paper products are viable alternatives for food containers and break down within weeks to months. The paper bag ban pushes people to use reusable bags made out of sustainable materials, so it takes it further. (It’s not hard. I’ve done it for years. And the pandemic argument doesn’t fly: Just clean your bags.)

Linda Doherty, president of the New Jersey Food Council, said:

Without a [paper bag] ban, consumers will simply move to paper single-use bags and we will not address the underlying goal of reducing our reliance on single-use products.

But there are still a lot of kinks that we as a world need to work out in order to find fully comprehensive viable alternatives for plastic. New Jersey — or heck, anyone — should run an innovation contest for sustainable replacements for more challenging plastic things like newspaper bags and supermarket meat trays. (If you’ve got ideas for alternatives to the above exceptions list, we’ve love to hear about them in the comments section.)

Plastic was invented in 1907, and in 1937, the Dow Chemical Company introduced polystyrene products to the US market. Maybe we need to re-examine history for ideas on how to wean off this convenient yet environmentally destructive material? People did survive without plastic for a lot longer than we’ve actually had it.

Eight other states have bans that are either in effect or will soon be implemented on single-use plastic bags. Here’s a reminder of why this is so important, and even the trailblazer state can improve — and hopefully others will quickly follow. (I’m looking at you, peninsula, water-surrounded Florida, with your ridiculous and irresponsible ban of local governments’ attempts at banning plastic bags.) The New Jersey Herald writes:

More than 80% of litter picked up at annual beach cleanups from Cape May to Sandy Hook by volunteers for Clean Ocean Action has been plastic in recent years.

A 2016 report by NY/NJ Baykeeper estimated that there were almost 166 million pieces of microscopic plastic floating in the waterways of New Jersey and New York.

Scientists have found microplastics in some of the most pristine rivers and creeks, including the upper Raritan and Passaic rivers.

That’s why.

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