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Food truck owners embrace NJ’s plastic bag, Styrofoam ban but still adjusting

Between cooking up tacos and serving waffle fries, Ryan Conway says he makes sure to slip in a few questions as he’s wrapping up orders.

“We always ask if they want plastic utensils or a paper bag. It’s not automatically given. We always ask. We had four people sitting here before,” said Conway, co-owner of Johnny Rippas, a TexMex food truck based in Dayton. “They ordered a bunch of food, and when they finished, they folded up their bags and said they didn’t use them. If we wanted them back.”

Conway said for sanitary reasons he didn’t re-purpose the bags for other orders. Instead, they were properly disposed of. But he was happy to hear customers were thinking that way, he said.

“You don’t want to be wasteful, nobody does,” Conway said.

Just over a week after New Jersey’s strict ban on single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam-like products began statewide May 4, businesses are shifting to the new rules in different ways. Among them are food trucks, which can no longer provide plastic bags or serve meals in polystyrene foam containers or provide Styrofoam cups or plates. Business owners, whether mobile or not, can also only hand out straws if customers request them.

Food trucks can continue to provide paper bags, according to the law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Nov. 4, 2020.

For some restaurants, the transition spelled another financial hit on top of COVID-19 pandemic woes with plenty of plastic bag supplies still on hand for eateries and paper alternatives often costing more. Plastic bags can cost as low as 7 cents each, while paper can run as much as 29 cents per bag, owners previously said. While the numbers may appear small, restaurant owners said those costs can add up.

Most food truck owners NJ Advance Media spoke with said they are ready for New Jersey’s ban on single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam — although it will take some adjusting to.

Bobby Hansen, left, and Ryan Conway at Johnny Rippas food truck on Rt 130 South in Dayton. Tuesday, May 10, 2022.Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

Owners like Conway and Bobby Hansen, his partner in the business, said they’re looking for ways to go beyond the ban. For example, the business never provided straws or Styrofoam packaging to begin with.

“I think people, especially during COVID, have become more agile when it comes to expectations of what they’ll get. Whether it’s baby formula that you can’t buy right now or along the lines of what we don’t have to comply with (the bag ban),” Hansen said. “We’re also trying to be environmentally friendly. I think for people, as long as the food is good, there haven’t been any issues.”

But some food truck owners were caught by surprise by the product bans, like Clara Vezos.

Owner of A La Carte Food Truck in Newark, Vezos said Tuesday she still hadn’t calculated the amount of money she’d lose by making the transition the ban required. And while she doesn’t use Styrofoam, plastic bags are the norm for her business of 16 years.

“It’s easier for customers to give them the plastic bags to-go so I’m still figuring this out. Also, paper bags are more expensive, especially if you’re a business that sells very inexpensive food. So no, it’s not convenient,” Vezos said in Spanish.

The bulk of A La Carte Food Truck’s customers are students from New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University looking for a burger or hot dog to grab between classes. The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down the campuses and shifted classes online for large portions of the past two years. Now that some students are back, serving can get complicated when plastic bags are out of the equation.

“They have their book bags, their textbooks, it’s difficult to (go bagless) or hand them a paper bag without handles to hold onto,” Vezos said.

Vezos estimated she still had over 100 plastic bags left, which she’s reluctant to donate or throw away as she already spent money on them, she said.

“Call me in a week or so… I’m still figuring this out,” she said.

Johnny Rippas food truck

A customer picks up his order at Johnny Rippas food truck on Rt 130 South in Dayton. Tuesday, May 10, 2022.Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

Conway and Hansen also have 100 single-use plastic bags left, which they plan to re-purpose. Everything, from takeaway to delivery, is now handled in their biodegradable to-go boxes and brown paper bags — that come in handled and “lunch bag” versions, the pair said.

About 45 miles north, The Arctic Dog food truck in Randolph is having an easier go of it.

Partly in anticipation of the bag ban, but also in hopes of being more sustainable, owner Jesse Glauberg said his business went bagless shortly after launching about two years ago. The Arctic Dog never served its quirky combo of hot dogs and shaved ice in Styrofoam containers.

“We use paper boats for all our hot dogs and then wax paper in between. If we ever need containers, we have plastic clamshell containers for to-go orders,” Glauberg said.

“We just don’t (have bags). If people need to hold stuff, they just bring their own,” he added.

Kerrie Sendall, assistant professor of biology at Rider University, said restaurants and food trucks can find a variety of alternatives to provide now that the ban is in place.

“There are a lot of more sustainable food containers out there that are easily biodegradable and would be good replacements for Styrofoam. Things like (paper containers), which are likely a little more expensive now, but their price should drop as demand goes up,” Sendall said.

In Jersey City, the start of the bag and Styrofoam bans on May 4 was just another day for food truck owners. The state’s second-largest city instituted a municipal plastic bag ban in 2019.

“It’s nothing new to us. I’ve been using paper bags for several years and we never used Styrofoam so we’re okay with whatever is good for the environment,” said Chris Curado, owner of seafood food truck Angry Archie’s.

Reception among customers has been good, Curado said. Like Johnny Rippas, people arriving at Angry Archie’s will always be asked if they want a bag with their food — unless it’s a particularly big order.

“The supply chain (issues were) the real problem last year with paper bags, and paper goods. So, we’ll see how that turns out this year,” Curado said. “You just got to maneuver and find a different source for them if you have to and, eventually, you’ll find something.”

Johnny Rippas food truck

Fries are served in paper at Johnny Rippas food truck on Rt 130 South in Dayton. Tuesday, May 10, 2022.Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

For more information on the ban visit nj.com/plasticbagban.

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Steven Rhodes may be reached at srodas@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @stevenrodasnj.

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