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Will New Jersey Ban Single-Use Plastics? Here’s a Look at its Journey So Far

by Vincent Grassi, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

West Long Branch, NJ – According to the Monmouth University Poll, a majority of New Jersey residents claim to support a ban on both plastic bags and straws. They also see ocean pollution caused by plastic products as a serious problem, but many are unaware of the threat posed by microplastics – extremely tiny pieces of plastic used in certain products like cosmetics or caused by the breakdown of larger plastic objects. Although legislation has been proposed to ban certain single-use plastic products, the state legislature has not yet enacted such a change.

The poll finds that a majority of New Jersey residents (65%) would support a ban on single-use plastic bags. The same rings true for plastic straws with a majority (52%) supporting a complete ban. Although the poll also suggests that public support may not be quite as robust as these numbers suggest.  More on that in a bit.

Last year, the state’s General Assembly introduced bill A3267 that would have put a nickel fee per bag on both plastic and paper carryout bags. The bill also called for the Department of Environmental Protection to put forth a public information program on the effects that single-use carryout bags have on the environment, and advocate for the use of reusable carryout bags. However, Governor Phil Murphy vetoed the bill saying that even though the bill was well-intentioned, “the time has come for a more robust and comprehensive method of reducing the number of single-use bags in our State.”

Critics of Governor Murphy’s decision say the fee would have been an important first step in the right direction. Those who supported the Governor’s veto may be pleased with the introduction of bill S2776, which would prohibit plastic carryout bags, polystyrene foam food service products, and single-use plastic straws. Customers would also be charged at least ten cents per paper carryout bag. Those who violate the law would have to pay a fine of $500 for their first offense, up to $1,000 for a second offense and up to $5,000 for subsequent offenses. Introduced in June of last year, the bill is currently pending in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. In the meantime, there is a growing list of New Jersey towns that have enacted their own bans on single-use plastic bags.

Gov. Murphy is holding out for a complete ban on single-use plastic bags, but maybe he should have settled for the Assembly bill last year. The Monmouth poll found that support for a “ban” may not be as strong as it first appears. Only 31% of New Jersey residents support a complete single-use plastic bag ban when it is posed against two other options, having customers who request a plastic bag pay a small fee (27% support) or allowing stores to continue to give away plastic bags for free (39% support).

In an effort to reduce the amount of plastic bags and straws that end up in the ocean, the proposed statewide ban highlights the public’s concern regarding ocean pollution. According to Monmouth’s poll, a majority of state residents (64%) believe ocean pollution caused by plastic products is a very serious problem. Most (71%) believe that plastics in the ocean causing injury to marine life is a major problem. Similarly, 60% feel that plastics in the ocean making seafood harmful to eat is also a major problem.

Another consideration in relation to ocean pollution is the issue of microplastics. Extremely tiny pieces of plastic in the ocean, referred to as microplastics, result from the breakdown of larger plastic products or come from certain products like cosmetics. These toxic pollutants pose risks to both ecological and human health. Attention has started to focus not only on the impact that microplastics have on marine life and their habitats, but also on human seafood consumers and drinking water.

In October 2018, the New Jersey state legislature introduced a resolution (ACR198) encouraging all levels of government to work together to clean up plastics from the state’s waters. The resolution touches on the impact of microplastic pollutants stating, “There is evidence that microplastic pollution can move through natural food webs and accumulate in fin fish and shellfish tissues, which means microplastics and associated pollutants have the potential to move into the human food chain.”

Unsurprisingly, some have raised the alarm at the idea of microplastics in drinking water. The World Health Organization does not recommend routine monitoring of microplastics in drinking water right now, however, this is largely due to the limited amount of research on the impacts they have on human health. Lawmakers in Trenton addressed concerns over microplastics in drinking water and introduced bill S3792 in May, which would direct the NJ Department of Environmental Protection to “adopt regulations concerning identification and testing of microplastics in drinking water.” It is currently in the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

Interestingly, the poll shows nearly half of Garden State residents (45%) say they have never heard about microplastics. Significantly fewer (17%) have heard a great deal about microplastics, 19% have heard some, and 19% have heard only little.

Since the poll shows that a vast majority of New Jersey residents believe ocean pollution is a very serious problem, there is the possibility that support for more rigorous government action could increase. However, there is still a way to go to create an informed public about the challenges posed by plastic in all its different forms.

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