February 7, 2024

Plastic Bag Ban Moves Ahead Despite Critics

By Donald Gilpin

The New Jersey plastic bag ban, enacted in May 2022, is calculated to have resulted in almost nine million single-use plastic bags per year that are not polluting the Princeton environment, according to Environment New Jersey’s Waste Reduction Calculator. Laid side to side, those bags would stretch 1,561 miles, and eliminating those bags has saved 45,318 gallons of oil needed to produce them and has cut single-use plastic bag litter by at least 33 percent each year.

New Jersey’s law, in effect now for almost two years, prevents stores from giving out single-use plastic bags to customers and also restricts most stores from providing single-use paper bags as well as polystyrene foam food takeout containers. Single-use plastic straws may be provided only at a customer’s request.

“The public has seen a big reduction in plastic bags,” said Environment New Jersey Director Doug O’Malley. “Seeing is believing. In litter cleanups at the shore and in our communities, there are fewer plastic bags overall. That’s a win — a win for our environment, a win for our communities, a win for all of us.”

He continued, “We were producing billions of plastic bags per year. Something that we use for 15 minutes can pollute our environment for generations, and that’s essentially what plastic bags became.”

New Jersey Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette noted in May 2023, on the first anniversary of the ban, “New Jersey’s initiative to step up and say no to continued plastics pollution in our communities and waterways is worthy of celebration because we have quickly seen the positive effects of this law.”

But the naysayers have not remained silent. Most conspicuously, early last month the market research group Freedonia Custom Research issued a report stating that the plastic bag ban might be doing more harm than good, boosting the use of alternative thicker polypropylene bags. The report also cited an increase in the use of alternative plastic bags by grocery pickup and delivery services and significant profits for retailers selling alternative bags.

Alternative bags are reusable, but, Freedonia claimed, on average each bag is reused only two or three times.

O’Malley, along with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and others, acknowledged

the need for consumers to continue to improve their habits of bringing their reusable bags to the store with them, but he largely dismissed the conclusions of the Freedonia study, which was funded by the American Recyclable Plastic Bag

“The Freedonia report is based on anonymous hearsay and has no citations,” O’Malley said. “It isn’t worth the electronic paper it’s written on. It was produced by the plastic bag industry as an attempt to sell their product. They say we’re producing more plastic, but they are looking at only the first few months after the ban went into effect.”

He continued, “Also, most people are reusing their reusable bags many times, not just two or three times. You need to have a healthy skepticism about the findings of that report.”

Sustainable Princeton Executive Director Christine Symington also questioned the Freedonia findings. “What is clear is that they don’t provide any research to support how they came to this conclusion,” she said, pointing out the biased funding source for the report. “When you see a report that is not backed up by any data, you should treat it with a lot of skepticism. It’s a suspicious report, just picking up and creating headlines and clicks, but there is no data behind this.”

Symington noted that the biggest issue in initiating the ban was “to reduce litter and pollution from bags and straws that end up in our streams and on our beaches,” and she emphasized the importance of remembering to reuse the alternate bags.

“The key there is you have to use them over and over again, so there’s a behavior change in the habit of bringing a reusable bag back to the grocery store so you don’t have to get another reusable bag,” she said. “It takes a while for everybody to adopt that habit. For this to have the intended effect of reducing emissions from consumption of resources, it is very important that we remember to use the same bags that we have over and over again.”

As far as her own habits are concerned, Symington observed, “I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty good. I have bags I’ve had for decades that I’m very fond of when I go shopping.”

She went on to point out that Sustainable Princeton has a collection point for bags and a volunteer takes the bags to the Princeton Mobile Food Pantry and other places in town where they can be reused and their useful lives can be extended.   

O’Malley noted that public resistance to plastic bags has been around for much longer than the two years since the statewide ban was enacted. In 2014 there was a Mercer County ballot measure to ban plastic bags. “It was ahead of its time,” O’Malley said. “It did not pass, but that was an early sign. Residents had had it with plastic.” 

Citing a “grassroots movement all across the state saying that plastic bags had become a scourge for our environment and for our communities,” O’Malley added, “It’s not as if we’ve lived forever with plastic bags. They’re a product of the 1980s.”

He went on to commend Princeton as a leader in the state. “Princeton was ahead of the curve,” he said. “A decade ago Princeton voters said, ‘We want to get rid of plastic bags.’” He also noted that many Princeton residents are adamant about recycling, and “plastic bags are the worst enemy of recyclers in Mercer County.”

Symington also applauded the community’s efforts to eliminate single-use plastic bags. “There are quite a number of Princeton residents who feel very passionate about this issue and helped to advance it at the state level,” she said. “I think the people in Princeton were very happy to comply with the ban and were glad to see it happen. We owe a lot of credit to people in the towns who made it a priority all the way up to the state level.”