Goodbye, plastic bags, and good riddance


By Alison Mitchell

Whether tumbling down roads, tangled in tree branches, floating in rivers or washed up on beaches, plastic shopping bags seem to be everywhere. They are among the most frequently found pieces of litter by volunteers cleaning up beaches, rivers and streams in New Jersey.

Single-use plastic bags are harmful to wildlife. Aquatic creatures like turtles, dolphins and whales can mistake them for food and choke to death or starve due to blocked digestive systems.

Plastic bags can also be ingested by birds or smaller fish as they break down into smaller pieces. They can also make their way up the food chain, affecting human health.

Thankfully, New Jersey’s contribution to the problem will be markedly less going forward. And it’s about time! On May 4, a law banning single-use plastic shopping bags goes into effect in New Jersey.

As of that date, supermarkets, stores and restaurants will no longer be allowed to give out single-use plastic bags to customers.

Restaurants and retail stores will be able to offer free paper bags instead, but food markets over 2,500 square feet – that is, most of them – will not have that option. Supermarket customers will have to bring their own reusable bags or buy them at the register.

Also starting on May 4, most polystyrene foam containers will be banned. This includes clamshell-style foam food containers and foam beverage cups. This is more good news for the environment.

New Jersey is the ninth state to ban single-use plastic bags, joining California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. The ban in this state we’re in is considered the strictest.

Efforts to get rid of single-use plastic bags began in New Jersey shore towns, which often see the worst consequences of plastic pollution. In 2015, Longport became the first municipality to ban single-use plastic bags. Several others followed.

Eventually, so many towns were jumping on the bandwagon that the state Legislature decided to take statewide action. The single-use bag ban was signed into law in November 2020, but implementation was delayed 18 months to give businesses and customers time to prepare.

While not everyone is happy about the change, it is one that is long overdue.

New Jersey uses about 4.4 billion single-use plastic bags every year and fewer than 5% are recycled. The rest go to landfills or trash incinerators, or end up as litter – all impacting wildlife and human health.

Plastic bags are made from petroleum byproducts and create air pollution when burned in incinerators. When exposed to sunlight, they break down into smaller and smaller bits, eventually becoming microplastics.

These tiny particles become part of the food chain and end up in our drinking water and food. Research shows that even some bottled waters are contaminated with microplastics.

The benefits of fewer plastic bags in the environment far outweighs the inconvenience of bringing your own.

May 4 will be here soon. Now is the time to stock up on reusable shopping bags and get into the habit of bringing them with you to the supermarket.

Reusable bags come in many sizes, shapes and materials, ranging from heavy-duty canvas bags to lightweight nylon bags that can be folded and carried in a purse or pocket. Some are plastic-coated and can be wiped down with a damp cloth, while others are designed to be laundered in a washer and dryer. Most supermarkets sell branded reusable bags for reasonable prices.

Once you get used to reusable bags, you may find you like them better. Many have flat bottoms, so they stand up on their own and fit more groceries. Reusable bags are also tougher than single-use bags, so you won’t have sharp items splitting or poking through the bags.

Not all plastic bags are included in the ban. Grocery store exceptions include bags to hold uncooked meat, fish or poultry; loose items like fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee and grains; and foods sliced or prepared to order. Non-grocery exceptions include bags for holding newspapers, prescription drugs and dry cleaning.

Even so, the more we seek alternatives to single-use plastic bags the better. There are reusable produce bags on the market and some establishments allow customers to bring containers for items sold in bulk.

Let’s do as much as we can to curb plastic pollution. Changing habits can be hard, but the health of our planet and its inhabitants – both great and small – is too important to ignore.

Alison Mitchell is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at [email protected]