A bill directing public schools and colleges in New Jersey to stop selling food and beverages in polystyrene packaging has taken a first step in the Legislature.

Sandra Meola, policy director for New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, said polystyrene plates, cups, trays and containers are used for minutes while eating, then persist in the environment for hundreds of years.

“Polystyrene is a commonly chosen material at public schools, but it is associated with seriously dangerous public health and environmental consequences that we just don’t have the time to deal with any more,” Meola said.

Henry Gajda, a public policy association for the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, said the plastic takes 500 years to biodegrade and accumulates in the food chain and waterways. He said 25 billion polystyrene cups are used a year in the United States, accounting for 20 percent to 30 percent of landfill composition.

“This is an important first step in the right direction for reducing our waste stream and limiting land, water and air pollution within and surrounding our state, and ultimately protecting the health of our students and children,” Gajda said.

Stephen Rosario, the Northeast region director for the American Chemistry Council, said it is a myth that polystyrene can’t be recycled and that institutions choose it because it costs less – so any change will cost the taxpayer.

“You can wave a magic wand and make polystyrene cups disappear. But you’re not going to make litter disappear by doing that. You’re not going to reduce marine debris by doing that. And you’re not going to address a whole host of issues by doing that,” Rosario said.

“At the end of the day, and I mean absolutely no disrespect: It may make us feel good, but it’s not going to do anything for the environment,” Rosario said of the proposed ban.

Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, said any assessment of the savings must consider the environmental impact of substitutes like producing and shipping paper cups.

“The real science behind eliminating it is not there. The cost involved of replacing by our public school system will be a very large cost,” Hart said.

Michael Vrancik, the director of government relations for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said he’s not sure how many schools use polystyrene packaging but notes the bill wouldn’t take effect until a year after it’s signed.

“There may a cost issue, but if there’s a year to work through the supply, we’re on board,” Vrancik said.

Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Somerset, one of the chief sponsors of bill S1486, said polystyrene is “so detrimental” and that schools can reduce the expense of switching to alternatives by forming co-ops to buy paper products.

“There is a cost involved, yes, but we also have to think about the environment that we’re responsible for being stewards of,” Bateman said.

The bill was advanced unanimously by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. Its next step is a possible vote by the full Senate.

A companion bill awaits consideration in the Assembly, where it was passed by one committee in the previous legislation session in 2017 but must restart the process.

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