What is the NJ Plastic Ban? Avoid Fines and Know New Rules

New Jersey’s Ban on single-use plastics is going into full effect on May 4th, 2022. Foodservice and retail industries will be the most affected as a keystone of their service model, providing customers plastic to hold their food or goods, will soon be a fineable offense.

For most New Jerseyians, this will be a minor inconvenience that they’ll quickly get used to. On the other hand, many business owners need to know what they’ll need to do to stay on the right side of this new regulation. They’ll also want to be aware of the many exemptions present in the law.

In this article, I’m going to detail the types of plastic soon to be banned, situations in which they’re still okay, and what the state expects business owners to do in place of the single-use plastics that have been used for decades.

No More Disposable Bags in NJ

NJ businesses of all types will be forbidden from offering plastic bags. Additionally, grocery stores larger than 2,500 sqft will be banned from providing free, single-use paper bags. Finally, all stores will be required to offer multi-use bags to their customers for purchase.

Grocery stores smaller than 2,500 sq ft will still be able to provide paper bags, but that won’t be forever. Even those regulations are being phased out within the next two years. In layman’s terms, bodegas, mini-marts, and convenience stores will still be able to offer free paper bags.

What Type of Businesses Are Included in the Plastic Ban?

Quoting the state website (sect. 1.3) directly: The single-use plastic bag ban applies to a “Store,” “Food Service Business,” & “Grocery Store.” The single-use paper bag ban applies to a “Grocery Store.” The following types of businesses are included in the ban:

  • A “Store” is any grocery store, convenience store, liquor store, pharmacy, drug store, or other retail establishment.
  • A “Food Service Business” sells or provides food for consumption on or off the premises, including establishments such as a restaurant, café, delicatessen, coffee shop, convenience store, grocery store, vending truck or cart, food truck, movie theater, or business or institutional cafeteria, including those operated by a government entity.
  • A “Grocery Store” is a self-service retail establishment that occupies at least 2,500 square feet and sells household foodstuffs for off-site consumption.

It does not include an establishment that handles only pre-packaged food that does not require time or temperature controls for food safety.

If you are uncertain whether a particular business meets the statutory definition of “Store,” “Food Service Business,” or “Grocery Store,” it’s a good idea to review the DEP’s List of Establishments and Applicable Provisions.

What Does New Jersey Consider a “Multi-use Bag”

A multi-use bag must be washable, have stitched (not glued) handles, and provide no less than 125 uses. The first question business owners will probably have is, “Do I have to provide that for free?” No, you don’t need to give the bag away; you can charge for it.

That said, it’s certainly an opportunity to establish brand recognition and establish customer appreciation when you offer a reusable bag for free. It can be an opportunity to get your logo and name out there, even if you have to pay a little to do it.

What Items Are Included in the Plastic Ban?

All plastic bags (except those exempted in the section below) and polystyrene food service containers and utensils.

What Items Are Exempted From the Plastic Ban?

Products exempted from the plastic ban include bags for:

  • Containing or wrapping uncooked meat, fish, or poultry.
  • Packaging loose items such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, grains, baked goods, candy, greeting cards, flowers, bulk food, or small hardware items.
  • Containing live animals, such as fish or insects sold in a pet store.
  • Containing food sliced or prepared to order, including soup or hot food.
  • Containing laundry, dry cleaning, or garment bag.
  • Providing prescription drugs from a pharmacy.
  • Containing newspapers.

Polystyrene (Styrofoam) Food Service Product Ban

It’s easiest to detail this ban by saying all polystyrene (styrofoam) containers and packaging will be banned. Now that’s said, review the exemptions below the state has recognized have no economically feasible alternatives to the polystyrene products currently used.

The particular situations where polystyrene will continue to be permitted are listed below.

  • Disposable, long-handled polystyrene soda spoons when required/used for thick drinks.
  • Portion cups of two ounces or less if used for hot foods or foods requiring lids.
  • Meat and fish trays for raw or butchered meat, including poultry or fish sold from a refrigerator or similar retail appliance.
  • Any food product pre-packaged by the manufacturer with a polystyrene foam foodservice product.

These exemptions will be in effect for two years from the ban’s effective date, or until May 4, 2024. The law also allows the DEP to extend any of the polystyrene foam foodservice product exemptions referenced above for additional periods not to exceed one year. These extensions will only be considered upon receipt of written documentation that there is no cost-effective and readily available alternative for the item.

How Do I Request a Waiver From the NJ Plastic Ban?

If you feel that you’re in a position where there is no reasonably-priced alternative to the plastic or polystyrene product you’ve been using for packaging, you can request a waiver from the state. Keep in mind, this waiver only lasts a year, so you’ll still have to seek alternatives.

Again, quoting the state:
“A waiver may be requested for a polystyrene foam foodservice product or food in a polystyrene foodservice product for a period not to exceed one year upon a determination that one of the following situations are met:”

  • There is no feasible and commercially available alternative for a specific polystyrene foam foodservice product; or
  • The person or business has less than $500,000 in gross annual income, and there is no reasonably affordable, commercially-available alternative to the polystyrene foam foodservice product.

These waivers must be approved in writing by the DEP. Waivers may be extended by the DEP for periods not to exceed one year upon written documentation submitted on the forms prescribed by the DEP.

Waivers are different from exemptions. Exemptions are specific to the list in Section 2.3 in the link provided. Waivers can be requested for any polystyrene foam foodservice product or food in a polystyrene foam foodservice product if the criteria outlined in this section apply.

Getting Specific, What About Plastic Straws?

Business owners will be allowed and even required to provide plastic straws, but only upon request. This is a little strange, but actually what the law states. You can’t offer it, but you must have them on hand should a customer ask for one.

I’m not going to get into the apparent contradictions in the law as it’s stated; I’m just relaying what I’ve read.

Which Agencies are Enforcing the NJ Plastic Ban?

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), individual municipalities, and any entity certified by the “County Environmental Health Act” have the authority to enforce the single-use plastic and paper carryout bag and polystyrene foam foodservice-product provisions of the law.

As for the plastic straw regulations, business owners only need to be concerned about the Department of Health.

Why on earth the vast majority of regulation falls into one camp, while plastic straw law falls squarely into the DOH, is entirely beyond me. I’ll keep my very opinionated opinions to myself on this one.

What Are the Fines for Violating NJ’s Plastic Ban?

For the first violation, violators will be given a warning; for the second, $1,000; for the third, $5,000. This makes these new regulations something that business owners should be paying attention to. Failure to do so three times could cost $6,000 and an additional 5k each time after.

This Information Isn’t Disposable, It’s Definitely Reusable

This new regulation is rough, unfair, and straining on small businesses, particularly foodservice businesses. They will struggle to find new ways to solve their packaging issues, which will likely cause some to suffer and even go out of business. Still, the outcome will be something the entire state will appreciate. I believe it will end up being a good thing in the long run.

As someone who grew up on the beaches of the Jersey Shore, it’s heartbreaking to see styrofoam coolers, to-go packaging, and plastic bags littered across an otherwise beautiful landscape. I hope that this will create opportunities for NJ businesses to start developing more environmentally friendly packaging at lower costs. After a couple of years of market adjustment, everyone will win.

My idealism, perhaps naive, but I’m trying to look on the bright side for a situation that I know will be quite difficult for many businesses in my home area.