TRENTON — Legislation that would eventually ban plastic and paper bags from being used at retail shops and restaurants in New Jersey was passed Thursday by the Senate, putting it back before the Assembly, where it stalled two months ago.

The bill is slightly different than the one that sputtered on the last day of the last session, as the restriction on plastic bags, paper bags and Styrofoam food containers would take effect in 18 months, rather than two years. It also restricts plastic straws at restaurants, unless customers request them.

“The flag is now in the sand,” said state Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex. “It goes over to the Assembly. We’re going to implore the speaker and the Assembly to, if they need amendments, put the amendments on it and send it back to us. Let’s all know what we’re doing here.”

Smith said he would have preferred a bill that would have moved more quickly to reusable bags and eliminated paper and plastic bags from the waste stream.

“I think you had to start the legislative process. And this bill is not perfect. It’s good, but it’s not perfect. And there’s room for discussion and amendment,” Smith said.

One difference on the bill remains the effective date of the bans on plastic and paper bags and whether they should be simultaneous. Another once-controversial provision that would have required stores to give away reusable bags for a period of time has been scrapped, with the state instead planning to spend $500,000 a year for three years from its Clean Communities Fund for that distribution.

“We’ll work with the Assembly and see where we can go with it,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “One of the reasons why we included plastic and paper was that since the plastic bag ban in New York, you can’t get paper bags. A lot of these, like the ShopRites of the world, can’t get the supplies they need and the prices are going up. And the price will only go up even more.”

The bill, S864, passed 22-14. All the votes in favor were cast by Democrats. One Democrat – Nick Sacco, D-Hudson – joined 13 Republican in voting against it.

Four senators were present but didn’t vote: Dawn Marie Addiego, D-Burlington; Christopher "Kip" Bateman, R-Somerset; Chris Brown, R-Atlantic; and Nilsa Cruz-Perez, D-Camden. Bateman and Brown had voted in favor of the earlier bill in January, which passed 21-14.

The bill was referred to the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, which is next scheduled to meet on March 16.

Environmental activists said they hope the Assembly acts on the bill this month, before the budget break idles most other legislation activity for six weeks. They said over 70 cities and towns have now passed ordinances related to plastic bags, Styrofoam and straws.

“Today was important because now the Assembly will be running out of excuses,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Before it was it was the end of the session. Now they don’t have that excuse. Earth Day is coming up. It’s the 50th anniversary. This would be a great bill to have the governor sign by then.”

“We want to ensure that plastics are not the scourge on the community that they are right now,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

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