One of the country’s strictest plastic bag bans is officially in effect in N.J.

Here’s everything you should know about New Jersey’s single-use bag and container ban, from what’s covered under the law and what’s exempt to which businesses are impacted.

Pedestrians carry plastic bags in Philadelphia

File hoto: Pedestrians carry plastic bags, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

New Jersey’s single-use bag and container ban, one of the strictest in the country, is officially in effect.

Stores in New Jersey are no longer allowed to provide or sell single-use plastic carryout bags or polystyrene foam containers (widely known as “Styrofoam”).

Here’s what you should know about the ban:

Why are plastic bags banned?

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the measure in November 2020 in an effort to tackle plastic pollution.

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The Environmental Protection Agency in 2018 reported that 4.2 million tons of plastic bags were generated in the U.S. Only 10% of those plastic bags were recycled.

Clean Ocean Action reported in its annual Beach Sweeps Report that plastic items continue to make up the vast majority of trash collected across 70 beach sites across the state.

“These type of single use plastics are an incredible source of litter,” said Shawn LaTourette, state commissioner of environmental protection. “They’re not easily recyclable and highly resistant to breakdown in the environment where a lot of these materials end up.”

Anjuli Ramos-Busot, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, explained the lifecycle of plastic in a recent appearance on WHYY’s “Radio Times.”

“It takes a very long time to decompose … it just takes hundreds of years,” Ramos-Busot said, adding that once plastic bags enter waterways, they degrade faster than they would in a landfill. What’s left are microplastics — pieces of plastic debris less than 5 millimeters long — that are subsequently consumed by wildlife, then by humans.

Ramos-Busot explained that it’s more challenging to recycle single-use plastic bags than other forms of plastic.

“What makes [plastic bags] even worse than just your regular plastic is that they are non-recyclable, you cannot recycle them. They’re single-use,” Ramos-Busot said. “And when you’re trying to recycle other types of plastics, and you have contamination with these plastic bags, that essentially ruins your entire batch of recyclable plastics.”

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Ramos-Busot also cited plastic bags’ tendency to ruin recycling equipment. “They’re incredibly polluting for the environment,” Ramos-Busot said, “but they’re also damaging for our recycling infrastructure.”

What businesses are impacted?

Virtually all businesses are affected by the ban. That includes grocery stores, pharmacies, retail stores, restaurants — including take-out and delivery — and nonprofit organizations, whether they handle food or not. See below for the one caveat.

What items are banned?

Banned items include single-use plastic carryout bags, polystyrene foam containers, and single-use paper bags.

New Jersey residents can also no longer purchase polystyrene foam plates, cups, or utensils.

What items are exempt?

Exemptions from the ban include bags that:

  • contain uncooked meat, fish, or poultry
  • package loose items like produce
  • contain live animals (think goldfish)
  • contain food sliced or prepared to order, including soup and hot food
  • laundry, dry cleaning, or garment bags
  • contain prescriptions
  • contain newspapers

Restaurants may still offer plastic straws upon request, a provision sought by people with disabilities. Paper straws may be offered as well (no request needed).

Food banks and nonprofits that operate food pantries have a six-month reprieve before they are required to make the switch.

Exemptions from the styrofoam ban for food service will remain in effect until May 4, 2024. This includes pre-packaged food products (think ramen noodle cups).

A cashier is pictured holding a plastic shopping bag with items inside.
A cashier is pictured holding a plastic shopping bag with items inside. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Are paper bags banned too?

Yes. Grocery stores larger than 2,500 square ft are prohibited from providing or selling paper bags to customers.

While a Monmouth University Poll found that 7 in 10 New Jerseyans are aware of the plastic bag ban, it also found that less than one-third of those polled are aware the same law forbids large supermarkets from handing out paper bags.

Paper bags may be recycled more easily, but a British study from 2011 shows that more energy is used to create them.

Commissioner LaTourette said the paper bag ban is to encourage people to use reusable bags “by having no other alternative” in the larger stores. He also recalled the principles of recycling taught in grade school — reduce, reuse, and recycle.

“The first approach to any product that could end up in our waste stream is to reduce the use of it, and that cuts down on the resources that are needed to produce it,” he said. “That is certainly the case for paper bags.”

Still, 51% of those polled were against the paper bag ban.

What are the penalties under the plastic bag ban?

Businesses that fail to adopt the single-use bag and container ban will be warned for a first offense, but may be fined up to $1,000 per day for a second offense and up to $5,000 per day for subsequent offenses.

WHYY News’ Tennyson Donyéa contributed reporting.

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