TRENTON – Changes to the new state law limiting the types of bags that can be used for delivery and curbside pickup of groceries advanced Thursday through a Senate committee, despite the opposition of supermarkets.

Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, said the ban on single-use plastic and paper bags has been “unbelievably, wildly successful” since taking effect in May but tweaks are needed for a small group of consumers.

He said the changes are a temporary fix that can be revisited again in a year.

Smith said the bill would give customers four alternatives for their grocery to-go orders, each of which would require the agreement of the resident and the store:

  • Keep getting groceries in reusable bags, with the option to return them to the store for free.
  • Receive groceries in paper bags, which would have to contain at least 40% recycled content.
  • Receive groceries in cardboard boxes, which Smith referred to as the Costco model.
  • Receive groceries in a container outside a person’s home, which Smith called the milkman alternative.

The bill was changed to limit the paper bag and cardboard box options to three years, down from the five-year window originally proposed.

It was also amended to encourage people to donate their growing supplies of reusable bags to community food banks. The food banks would also get a three-month extension, to February, to comply with the single-use bag ban, which they sought to get through the high-demand holiday season.

“The one criticism that stings, and it’s true, is: Why are we doing this after five months? Maybe we should wait two years before we do it.” Smith said.

“The only thing is we have this high acceptance by New Jersey citizens now. Giving them a couple of alternatives is not the worst thing to do,” he said. “And we’re not backsliding. You’re talking about 2% of New Jersey citizens that do it this way. And even if they go to the paper option, it’s recyclable.”

Three billion bags eliminated already

Mary Ellen Peppard, vice president of the New Jersey Food Council, said a survey of grocery stores indicates that grocery stores have eliminated around 3 billion single-use plastic bags and 68 million paper bags over the five months since the law took effect. She didn't immediately know how many reusable bags had been used.

Prorated over a full year, that would amount to a reduction of more than 7 billion single-use plastic bags and 160 million paper bags.

“In terms of the prior waste, that number is mind-blowing,” Smith said. “It’s mind-blowing. This is one bill that’s really working.”

Peppard said that because of that success, lawmakers shouldn’t amend the program already but rather give stores time to figure out the best to handle the pileup of bags for a small subset of customers.

“Please leave it alone. Please don’t touch it,” Peppard said. “In addition to the success we’ve had, the challenges with pickup, curbside and delivery are only a very small percentage of overall sales. We just wouldn’t want to see the success of the overall program be undermined.”

Part of the challenge is that delivery services would be able to use paper bags – but those include independent contractors such as Door Dash that do the shopping themselves and use the same check-out registers as other customers who couldn’t use those bags and might get angry about that.

Not ready to take bags back

Business groups said it would be complicated for stores to take back large numbers of reusable bags and sanitize them and that they couldn’t accommodate it without overhauling store operations. Because they would be prohibited from charging a fee for that, they would raise prices, Peppard said.

“The return, the sanitation and reuse – there simply is no infrastructure in place to achieve that at this moment, and from the understanding of my members, there is nothing currently in development,” said John Holub, president of the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association. “That’s simply not achievable in the short term.”

Frank Brill, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, said he knows of a company in the Piscataway area that recycles reusable bags. Smith was interested to know more about it.

Why phase out paper?

Some business representatives said the paper bag or cardboard box delivery option should be permanent, not phased out after three or five years.

Phil Rozenski, a vice president for Novolex, which manufacturers paper bags, said his company has a facility in Elizabeth that employs around 250 people.

“While New Jersey is banning paper bags, it’s actually choosing to make jobs in China,” where many of the reusable bags are manufactured, Rozenski said.

Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, said data from the federal International Trade Commission says the United States is on track to import an additional 500 million stitched-handle, reusable plastic bags this year.

Green groups split

Environmental activists were divided on whether to tweak the law.

Eric Benson, New Jersey campaign director for Clean Water Action, said he has accumulated a lot of bags through curbside grocery pickup but that it’s “a niche problem” that doesn’t need a premature fix – and certainly not one that allows for more single-use bags.

“The law has been in place for less than a year,” Benson said. “Curbside pickup and delivery had over 18 months to prepare for this. The fact that they did not prepare is not my fault."

Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, said it’s hard to know if the situation facing customers of grocery delivery and pickup services is a big enough deal to tweak the law but that it’s a minor concession to allow paper bags temporarily.

“But we have to be reasonable, too,” Potosnak said. “It’s a small percentage of people that this is happening to. This is not everyone. Saying paper bags are OK for home delivery is not opening a big can of worms. It’s not going to be the end of the world.”

Don't recycle reusables

Some environmental groups urged Smith to remove a provision from the bill that would allow for grocery stores to recycle the reusable bags they collect.

“We should not be recycling a reusable bag after one time,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “That does not fit the definition of a reusable bag. That inherently becomes a single-use bag.”

Chad Lundahl, co-founder of GOATOTE, a reusable bag system in which a customer can get as many reusable bags as they want for $1 per shopping trip and avoid a $2 per bag fee so long as they return them, said it would be a disservice for New Jersey to undo its progress.

“The lack of effort from retailers and third-party services is why we’re here today,” Lundahl said. “They should not be rewarded with an extension of single-use waste, especially when supporting systems exist in New Jersey today.”

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at

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