MICHELE S. BYERS / NJ CONSERVATION FOUNDATION – Look around and you’ll see plastic bags everywhere: tumbling along roads, washed up on beaches, caught in tree branches, and clogging rivers, streams and storm drains.
In 2017, volunteers for Clean Ocean Action collected more than 9,000 plastic bags during their spring and fall “Beach Sweeps” up and down the Jersey shore. In April, volunteers for Raritan Headwaters Association picked up 2,370 bags along the Raritan River and its tributaries.
These cleanup efforts – involving thousands of volunteers – help keep our ocean and waterways safer for fish, birds, dolphins, whales, turtles and other aquatic creatures. They also help make the public aware of the enormous harm caused by single-use bags.
Happily, this heightened public awareness is translating into action.
In 2015, the borough of Longport, just south of Atlantic City, became the first town in New Jersey to ban single-use plastic bags. Stores in this Absecon Island town are prohibited from giving out plastic bags to customers; instead, shoppers are asked to bring their own reusable bags. If a customer doesn’t have a bag, businesses charge customers 10 cents apiece for bags.
Two more towns – Teaneck in Bergen County and Long Beach Township on Long Beach Island – have also banned single-use plastic bags. Long Beach’s ban took effect on May 1, just in time for the summer season.
In February, Stafford Township in Ocean County introduced a law banning single-use plastic bags; a public hearing will be held this summer. And on May 1, Point Pleasant Beach in Ocean County introduced its own plastic bag ban. The town will help the transition by handing out 1,000 reusable canvas bags.
These local efforts are critical and very positive. But why not ban single-use bags outright in this state we’re in?
New Jersey uses about 4.5 billion single-use plastic bags every year. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fewer than 5 percent of all single-use plastic bags are recycled. The rest go to landfills or trash incinerators … or end up as litter.
Plastic bags burned in incinerators create air pollution. Those in the ocean and waterways are hazards to wildlife, which mistake them for food. Bags exposed to sunlight break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming “microplastics.” These microscopic plastic particles become part of the food chain, and end up in our drinking water. Recent research shows microplastic contamination in many popular bottled waters.
In 2016, California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags. On its one-year anniversary last November, the state declared a victory: some 13 billion plastic bags a year had been eliminated, and the number of plastic bags on beaches dropped significantly. Californians quickly adjusted to bringing their own bags to stores or paying 10 cents for heavier-weight reusable bags.
California’s law is tough, but not nearly as tough as those in other places! Kenya enacted the world’s strictest ban on single-use plastic bags in 2017. Kenyans producing, selling or even using plastic bags are subject to up to four years in jail or fines of $40,000. More than 40 additional countries have banned, partly banned or taxed single-use plastic bags.
Would a statewide ban or tax on single-use plastic bags work in New Jersey?
This past February, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle introduced a new bill that would impose a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic bags, an incentive for customers to bring their own bags. The bill is still before the Assembly’s Environment and Solid Waste Committee, and it remains to be seen whether the full Legislature will get behind it or an amended version.
But why wait for your town – or the state Legislature – to act? Take action today to reduce plastic pollution by voluntarily bringing your own reusable shopping bags. It’s not hard to develop this new habit – it’s just like buckling your seat belt or flossing your teeth!
Biodegradable plastic shopping bags are another solution, but they’re not yet readily available. Most stores don’t offer biodegradable bags, and they need to be composted rather than tossed in the trash.
Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.