Fight continues to ban plastic, even with heavy use in pandemic
Momentum was building in the Garden State earlier this year for a potential statewide ban on single-use items such as paper and plastic bags.
Then the pandemic hit.
And now, groups that have been pushing for that ban for quite some time are hoping momentum doesn't shift in the other direction.
Dependence on single-use items such as bags, straws, cups and take-home containers has shot up since the health emergency began, with in-person dining halted since the middle of March and eateries counting on take-out and delivery orders to stay afloat.
In mid-June, New Jersey restaurants were given approval to offer outdoor seating; many have turned to one-use items in hopes of limiting the risk of cross contamination among customers.
Several supermarkets have discouraged shoppers from bringing in reusable bags for the same reason.
"We're seeing this tidal wave of disposable single-use plastics, which is exactly what we're trying to move away from," Doug O'Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, said of towns along the shore. "If anything, I think the pandemic and the rise of single-use plastics during COVID-19 reaffirms the importance of ... starting to phase out single-use disposables."
Most, but not all, Jersey Shore municipalities that had introduced their own plastic bans or limitations prior to the pandemic have "stuck to their guns" since the health crisis hit New Jersey, O'Malley said. In fact, a couple of municipalities in the state adopted ordinances targeting single-use plastics in the several weeks since New Jerseyans were first urged to stay at home, including Oceanport and Pennington.
"The reality here is that single-use plastics are not making us safer to beat the pandemic," O'Malley said. "What makes us safer is social distancing and masking up."
The New Jersey Food Council, which represents the state's food retail industry and is a supporter of a statewide ban on single-use bags, had been urging New Jersey towns with plastic bans to temporarily suspend them in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency.
"States like Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Illinois, as well as cities like San Francisco, have paused their bans on single-use bags, and for good reason," the council said in an online post in April. "We know that only about 3% of shoppers actually clean their reusable bags, and a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that COVID-19 can survive on plastic surfaces up to 3 days. Store employees staffing the checkout lines and interacting with customers simply do not want to touch a customer’s reusable bags in fear that these bags are harboring the invisible COVID-19 virus."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains the "most important mode of transmission" for COVID-19 is through close contact from person to person. The federal agency says "it may be possible" that a person get the respiratory illness by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it.
Less than two weeks before Gov. Phil Murphy started limiting activities in New Jersey by executive orders, the state Senate passed by a vote of 22-14 a measure that would ban paper and plastic bags from being used at restaurants and retail shops. The legislation also included a ban on Styrofoam containers, and restricted the use of plastic straws.
Since then, the measure has not moved in the Assembly, where it had stalled during a previous attempt by lawmakers to get it on the governor's desk.
"We're hearing mumblings that that'll start moving again in October," said Peter Blair, policy attorney for Clean Ocean Action. "Were hoping that we're going to see some progress here in New Jersey on the state level."
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