The issue emerged during a hearing this week on the decline of Barnegat Bay. Environmental advocates list - among a host of problems - plastic bags as a cause of rising pollution there.
"They clog up storm drains so they don't function," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
Conservationists argue that the bags and other plastics also are a big source of debris in oceans, posing dangers to marine life and sea birds.
John Weber, Northeast regional manager with the Surfrider Foundation, said the United Nations estimated that 100,000 marine mammals and up to one million sea birds die each year from ingesting or becoming tangled in plastics in various forms.
"Bans and fees work," Weber said. "Bag usage drops significantly whenever either is passed. In Washington, D.C., a five-cent fee curtailed plastic bag use by 60 percent within weeks. This not only reduces unsightly litter, it can also reduce the lethal impact on wildlife."
Representatives of the plastics-manufacturing industry disputed that view, telling legislators Monday in Lavalette that plastic bags were more environmentally friendly than paper bags.
"Paper bags have a lot larger carbon footprint than plastic bags," said Donna Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance.
The American Chemistry Council supports that view. According to its website, using paper bags doubles the amount of carbon dioxide produced compared with paper bags; plastic-bag production requires less than 4 percent of the water needed to make paper bags; and paper bags create almost five times more solid waste than plastic bags.
Nonetheless, several regions in the nation have enacted bans on plastic bags, including 50 jurisdictions in California, according to a memo from the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services prepared for the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.
There are no statewide bans, fees, or taxes on plastic carryout bags, although legislation is pending, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Philadelphia considered an ordinance banning the bags, but the measure failed.
In New Jersey, seven bills now in the Legislature concern recycling or phasing out noncompostable, single-use plastic bags, and offering reusable bags for purchase. Industry lobbyists dispute the allegation that most plastic bags are resigned to a single use, saying many consumers reuse them.
Industry and business lobbyists argued that the sector was making strides in recycling plastic bags and that, instead of banning their use, the state should ramp up education efforts about the need to recycle.
The effort to ban plastic bags could have an economic impact on New Jersey, Dempsey said, since there are 16 plastics-manufacturing facilities in the state, employing more than 700 people.
Barbara McConnell, vice chair of the New Jersey Clean Communities Council, noted that the state already had a tax on litter-generating products.