TRENTON – Three months before New Jersey’s ban on plastic carryout bags at retail stores, restaurants and supermarkets goes into effect, lawmakers are looking at making changes to exempt food pantries and food banks.

The law that takes effect May 4 is meant to have its biggest impact at grocery stores 2,500 square feet or larger, which are also banned from providing customers single-use paper bags. The plastic bag rule applies at restaurants, delis, small grocery stores, convenience stores, food trucks, movie theaters, pharmacies, retail stores – and nonprofit organizations.

“The law never intended to include the food banks,” said Assemblyman James Kennedy, D-Union, chairman of the Assembly environment committee, which voted to advance the bill. “The intent of the bill was to assist the food banks at the time when they needed it the most.”

Too soon to make changes

Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, said the Legislature shouldn’t tinker with a law whose rules aren’t even fully set yet, when the fix could be as simple as giving food banks reusable bags and clarify that they can use paper ones.

“The only place that you can find a plastic bag hanging from a fence post should not be in a low-income community,” Coffey said. “We should get this right.”

John Weber, Mid-Atlantic regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, said towns that already banned plastic bags before the state did generally try to accommodate lower-income residents by providing them reusable bags for free.

“We have a food pantry in our town,” said Weber, who is also a Bradley Beach councilman. “They’ve been running a food pantry for years without plastic bags at all.”

Provide bags to pantries

Weber says pantries can ask for donations of reusable bags, just like they do for food. Also, the law banning plastic and paper bags provides $500,000 to the Clean Communities Fund that can be used to provide reusable bags to people and organizations who need them.

“Pantries shouldn’t have to buy bags,” Weber said. “The state can step in and help get that done.”

Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex, said his wife works one day each week at food banks in South Orange and West Orange apiece and that people who receive reusable bags don’t generally come back with them.

“Folks do come back, though, because they’re hungry,” McKeon said. “So, I think in all that we’ve accomplished, this is just such a minor component that it’s not opening the door to a slippery slope. These are food banks.”

What reusable bags can be sold?

The bill also expanded the definition of what qualifies as a reusable carryout bag. Environmentalists were wary and hadn’t seen the details of the change, which was quickly endorsed by Michael DeLoreto, an attorney representing Papier-Mettler, a major manufacturer of plastic and paper bags.

DeLoreto said the company backed the bill “simply because it’s focused on durability, reusability, recycled content, responsible and ethical manufacturing and adoption of a ‘cradle-to-cradle’ philosophy when it comes to manufacturing end-of-life processes.”

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Specifically, the allowable carryout bags that could be sold would be expanded to include ones that: are made from low density polyethylene with a minimum area density of 120 grams per square meter; are composed of at least 80 percent post-consumer-recycled content; have stitched handles; are capable of carrying 22 pounds over a distance of 175 feet for a minimum of 125 uses; and are capable of being recycled into a new product without further chemical modification or treatment.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at

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