This month, three more Jersey Shore towns joined the movement to ban or strictly regulate the provision of single-use plastic bags by most stores.
That makes 17 municipalities in the state with ordinances pending in another 10 towns.
There are a lot of variations in the local rules. Among the three new ordinances, Brigantine is banning single-use plastic carryout bags. Avalon is also prohibiting the distribution of plastic straws and plastic foam food containers. Stone Harbor matches neighboring Avalon and adds a ban on other disposable foodware, including cutlery, containers and bowls.
Shore towns deserve much credit for starting the movement among municipalities to ban plastic bags, which don’t biodegrade and permanently litter the countryside and the ocean. Now with 27 municipal variations on regulating single-use plastics and more on the way, the need for the consistency of a statewide law gets more obvious each month.
Last summer the Legislature passed a bill to keep allowing single-use bags, but charge a 5-cent fee for each — with much of the money going to the state, perhaps $100 million a year. Gov. Phil Murphy wisely vetoed it and called for a stricter ban on single-use plastics.
The plastic bag industry has fought back and the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a trade group for manufacturers, has opposed the stricter bill in Trenton.
The alliance and plastic bag advocates have made some good arguments. One is tied to climate change: Making a single-use plastic bag emits less carbon than making one of paper, and much less than the alternatives of reusable cotton and thicker plastic bags used multiple times.
But evidence for the problem with throwaway plastic bags is obvious — in the countless plastic bags stuck in trees everywhere, in the trouble they cause to recycling programs, and in the plastic bags clogging the stomachs of dead whales and other marine life that mistake them for food.
In the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup in 2017, grocery and other plastic bags were among the most common items found, exceeded only by cigarette butts, food wrappers, and bottles and their caps.
Bans have worked. A year after a California ban and three years after a Los Angeles ban, plastic bags were less than 4% of the coastal cleanup waste there, down from 8% previously. And Chicago, merely by charging a 7-cent fee for bags, reduced their use at grocery stores by 78%.
New Jersey legislators are considering a ban on single-use plastic bags, plastic straws and polystyrene food containers. It would assess a fee of 10 cents on each paper bag provided, with half of the fees going to the store and half to the state. The state could use 1% of its share on administration, with the rest funding a Plastic Pollution Prevention Fund.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, says he’d like to see an outright ban on paper bags as well. He said that in other places, people simply adapt and get used to bringing their own bags to stores when they need them.
Maybe that’s an appropriate eventual goal, but meanwhile there could be a lot of frustration if stores can’t even provide a paper bag for a fee. The harm of letting people pay for a biodegradable paper bag for a while seems minimal.
Several states have restricted single-use plastics and New Jersey should join them soon. Whatever is enacted will need to be updated as the plastic recycling market adjusts to global changes and as consumers get accustomed to choosing reusing over recycling.
The current bill looks like the good intermediate step the public and businesses need to transition to a less wasteful and less polluting future.