Styrofoam ban in NJ schools will be a test when plastic bag ban begins, officials say

Many school districts have had a tough two years, and an upcoming plastic bag ban could add another hardship to their existing worries.

New Jersey’s plastic bag ban — which Governor Phil Murphy signed into law two years ago — is set to go into effect May 4. Considered the strictest in the country, the law prohibits all single-use bags in grocery stores and limits the types of bags non-grocery stores can use.

The bill also bans most styrofoam foodservice products, or styrofoam-like products, in dining areas of schools, office buildings and hospitals. Organizations can apply for a waiver that grants an exemption from the Styrofoam ban for up to one year.

But some food service directors at schools across the state told NJ Advance Media that switching to acceptable substitutes would create a significant economic burden on their districts, amid COVID-related shortages, supply chain issues , rising inflation and rising fuel costs.

“It’s amazing the cost of the items,” said Colleen Green, director of food services for the Penns Grove-Carneys Point Regional School District, noting that the change will be a financial burden.

She estimates that she spends about 50% more per case of items. A case of foam trays can cost around $22, but for a case of paper trays, the price is closer to $50.

Before COVID, the district used more expensive reusable plastic trays that could last an entire school year. But now even those are no longer an option, as there aren’t enough staff to run the trays through the dishwasher, she said.

K-12 schools have not received additional funding to offset additional spending on products that comply with the ban.

And it’s not just the price of the items either.

Manufacturing shortages and ongoing supply chain issues mean the contents of an order are not guaranteed, Green said. Last week, she ordered 10 cases of three-compartment lunch plates – and she only received three.

Green joined other districts in a statewide cooperative buying group to demand the polystyrene waiver, which they received. She said her district expects to be in compliance by May 4, but the waiver will act as a precaution, should a shortage occur.

“It has become very difficult to get the supplies we need,” she said.

A total of 40 districts received the waiver by April 13, which grants a waiver until August 31. Schools can ask the DEP for another extension up to 60 days before this deadline. Only one district that is not part of the cooperative — Neptune — was granted a waiver, according to the DEP.

Joe Immordino, Jackson’s food service manager, is the co-op’s purchasing president. Speaking in his role for the co-op, Immordino said the districts support the goal of the legislation and environmental change, but the timing is dire.

The waiver is necessary to overcome the current situation of supply chain issues, manufacturing issues due to COVID and exorbitant costs, he said.

“In principle, we absolutely think the legislation has significant merit,” he said, but now “the products are really just not available. The cost is just exponentially higher.

He estimates that new products complying with the ban are four to five times what he is currently paying. Before COVID, a polystyrene tray could cost 10 cents, with a ban-compliant paper tray costing around 18 cents, which is more, but doable, he said.

Now, those same items can cost between 35 and 50 cents per unit.

“It’s a problem,” Immordino said. “This is going to have a devastating effect on our ability to keep our food prices low (for) families.”

Also, some items are not physically available. And since most sellers buy from the same manufacturers, shortages and high prices will be felt across the board.

“This is going to be a test for many school districts,” Immordino said.

Tonya McGill, executive director of food services at Newark, said she was working on the waiver request this week. She echoed similar concerns about cost.

“It’s very expensive to use biodegradable (products),” she said. “The price basically doubles, plus a bit more.” As a result, the ban will impact the district’s results, she said.

Donna Devany, Food Services Manager for the Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills, said she was unaware of the waiver being granted and that the district will continue to use paper products. But “the cost will increase,” she said. “There is nothing we can do.”

Some districts said they would be okay with the upcoming ban, which was enacted in November 2020, but gave organizations 18 months to prepare.

In Mount Olive, Superintendent Robert Zywicki said the district phased out plastic bags two years ago. They use aluminum foil, paper packaging and other recycled products for their food service.

And in Paterson, spokesman Paul Brubaker said the district hadn’t used polystyrene products in four years. They now use biodegradable paper products.

But the district still plans to apply for the waiver “to guard against any supply chain disruptions that prevent paper products from arriving in the district,” he said.

Even so, other districts are bracing for increased costs and potential shortages come in early May when the legislation takes effect.

“I think people lose sight of it. They see this transition (is) more environmentally friendly,” said Green, at Penns Grove. “They don’t see the ripple effect it has down the food chain, so to speak.”

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Brianna Kudisch can be contacted at [email protected].

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