Bans and fees on single-use shopping bags in the state started at the Jersey Shore, which is appropriate since avoiding plastic pollution in the neighboring ocean is one of the main goals of the change.
They began in Longport, with its tiny commercial district, and soon included Avalon, Beach Haven, Long Beach Township and Stone Harbor. Stafford Township, home to many big-box retailers, initiated a ban on single-use plastic bags that started in December.
Last year, the state almost joined the trend. The Legislature passed a bill to require a 5-cent fee on single-use bags, with much of the money going to the state — perhaps $100 million a year or more.
But the usual status quo opposition to the plan was joined by those who saw it as perpetuating single-bag use forever. Once New Jersey grabs hold of a revenue stream, it doesn’t let go. Gov. Phil Murphy wisely vetoed the bill and although he stopped short of calling for a ban, he said it was time “for a more robust and comprehensive method of reducing the number of single-use bags in our state.”
That number is about 4.4 billion plastic bags each year. Hardly any get recycled since they’re banned from regular recycling pickup and must be placed in dedicated bins at certain stores. Some get loose, creating eyesores across the outdoors and contributing to the 8 million metric tons of plastic people put in the oceans every year.
Ventnor joined the trend in October and has been patiently bringing its businesses into compliance with its 5-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags.
The South Jersey town where bag fees will have their single-biggest impact just started this month. Somers Point, which has a large Acme and many other stores, also hosts the historically highest-volume-by-far supermarket in the region, the ShopRite at the convergence of New Road, Bethel Road and Ocean Heights Avenue.
Thousands of shoppers have been adjusting. It’s exciting to be pioneering an important environmental transition, but it’s also challenging.
Many shoppers who hadn’t read about the change in the newspaper were surprised to find they’d have to decide how many bags they wanted and pay a nickel each for them. ShopRite helped with its own information campaign, by handing out some stronger plastic bags that can be reused (also available for 10 cents), and temporarily selling sturdier totes for just 25 cents. It also deployed more baggers at the checkouts to counter the inevitable slowdown of lanes as shoppers figure out how they’re responding.
The reusable bags available in local supermarkets are OK, but they used to be better and need to be again. A couple of decades ago at SuperFresh (now gone) and Acme you could get canvas shopping bags the size and shape of a brown paper grocery bag but with handles. These never break, last for many years and can be laundered with bleach to keep them fresh and sanitary.
Other states and major cities — California, Hawaii, Boston, Chicago, Seattle — already have made this transition, including from fees to bans. In California, you can’t get a plastic bag, except for those without handles to hold and protect seafood, deli products and such. A paper bag costs 10 cents.
Many shoppers may find that, once they’ve optimized their reusable bag routine, it’s better and easier for them as well as the environment. One member of our editorial board switched to canvas bags 20 years ago, not so much to reduce pollution as to improve grocery handling.
Shore municipalities deserve a lot of credit for getting rolling with the transition away from single-use bags and not waiting for the state. Jersey Shore towns are showing state leaders the way and giving them confidence that a statewide approach is politically possible.
That’s needed because unnecessary and problematic bags are everywhere, and rules need to be consistent to avoid some towns taking advantage of others.
New Jersey can also look to the experience of other states and cities for guidance. The path already seems pretty clear.
The problem has been free bags, which aren’t actually free since their cost is built into the prices of the products put into them. They encourage waste and pollution that are unacceptable — unbearably so now that there are 328 million Americans and 7.4 billion others elsewhere in the world.
The Legislature and Gov. Murphy should ban single-use plastic bags and require a fee for paper bags sufficient to cover their cost and discourage their unnecessary use. That would be fair to everyone and benefit all life on land and in the sea.