State senators are recycling the plastic bag bill, making the proposed ban on carryout bags among the first major pieces of legislation to advance in new legislative session.

The version of the bill that stalled in the Assembly 18 days ago would have banned carryout bags and Styrofoam in two years. At the suggestion of Sen. Dick Codey, that’s now trimmed to 18 months.

“I’m concerned about the two years because we’re talking realistically maybe two and a half to three years before this starts. I mean, it’s just way too long,” said Codey, D-Essex.

The bill had already been changed to remove a provision requiring supermarkets to provide free reusable bags. Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, said that instead $500,000 in state Clean Communities funds will be used in part to provide free bags in advance of the would-be law’s effective date.

“Hopefully we’re going to put a flag in the sand and get something very, very close to this bill passed,” Smith said.

The bill was passed by the Senate earlier this month, then hit a wall in the Assembly. The bill is not on the agenda for next week’s first Assembly environment committee of the new session.

Sen. Kip Bateman, R-Somerset, said plastic bags are “probably the number one public enemy” and should be the sole focus of a simpler bill that doesn’t include bans on paper bags and Styrofoam food containers and put limits on the distribution of plastic straws.

“If we couldn’t get this through in lame duck, what’s going to make it get through now?” Bateman said. “I think we’re losing time. And I think that we owe it to the next generation to get plastics out of the environment because they are so harmful.”

“If you waited a couple days, this could have happened on Groundhog Day,” said John Weber, mid-Atlantic regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “And that would be appropriate because we seem to do this over and over and over again.”

Part of the current holdup is over whether thicker plastic bags that can be used repeatedly are a reasonable alternative to typical plastic bags used by retailers.

Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, said unless the state mandates cotton bags, there’s plastic in every cloth alternative contemplated. He said his group doesn’t actually want to move to thicker bags.

“We don’t want to put more material into a product than we need to. That just doesn’t make sense,” Seaholm said. “If we don’t have a sustainable product, we don’t have a sustainable business.”

Judith Enck, founder of Beyond Plastics and the former Environmental Protection Agency director for the region that includes New Jersey, said the option for thicker bags was a mistake in California and that it’s the 10-cent fee for them that has reduced demand there.

“I would argue that replacing thin plastic bags with thicker plastic bags is actually worse for the environment,” Enck said.

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