The Ban on Plastic Bags: Viewing It Through the Rear-View Mirror

Whatever happened to those plastic bags we used to get at the supermarket? It’s a question some might be pondering as the adjustment to their disappearance has taken hold, and it makes me wonder whether we have relegated those bags to recent history.

We’re probably not quite there yet, but the idea of a New Jersey supermarket bagging your groceries in a throwaway single-use plastic bag will be as odd as looking for a pay phone (that works).

After New Jersey enacted the ban, retail stores, grocery stores and food service businesses could no longer use single-use plastic carryout bags and polystyrene foam food service products. The reason for banning these products was clear: The items were a significant contaminant in our recycling facilities, waterways, roadways and the environment.

Like any significant cultural and environmental change, there were probably a few hiccups. Everyone knows no carryout bag is waiting for them at the supermarket, and most of us have probably learned to keep a few reusable tote bags in the trunk of our cars.

Certainly, the ban has worked. According to some estimates, it has eliminated 3 billion plastic bags and 68 million paper bags after implementation in New Jersey. This is all on the plus side for a cleaner environmental stream.

Yet the success of the ban on single-use plastic bags has had a few unintended consequences. One such impact is that some organizations that have been using the bags previously to help our neighbors with food suddenly have a problem. 

The Food Bank of South Jersey supports the bag ban because of its positive environmental impact. However, they, too, need bags to meet their goal of helping people who face food insecurity. Therefore, they have asked that donors also give their surplus reusable bags to help them with their mission. They hand out more than 80,000 bags annually, so we need to support them in this remarkably worthy effort.  

But as noted, another unintended consequence is that it has forced home delivery or shop-from-home services, for example, to include too many reusable bags with each order.

Some have described the current results as a “glitch” in the system that needs correction because home delivery customers correctly claim that they are being inundated with reusable plastic tote bags.

With this in mind, I have cosponsored Senate Bill No. 3114. The bill would eliminate the prohibition on single-use paper bags by grocery stores for specific orders for three years, allow packaging options for grocery orders, and require a program to dispose of reusable bags for grocery orders.

In simple terms, it would allow consumers to receive groceries in paper bags if delivered or by curbside pickup for three years. The bill also requires grocery stores and third-party grocery delivery services that provide reusable bags for home delivery to establish a program for the return, sanitation, and reuse of reusable bags or a program to recycle the returned reusable bags. 

The ban would continue, however, for purchases made inside supermarkets or big box stores.  

The bill’s slight adjustment to the current situation will ease some of the glitches while maintaining the integrity of a policy that has made our environment safer and cleaner.

That’s my take, what’s yours?