On the one hand, the US is so awash in plastic that any meaningful step in the direction of curtaining use should be applauded. On the other, the surprise adoption of a law in New Jersey that does more than target plastic shopping bags and straws looks like a bold move…until you see how much was left untouched.
Admittedly, New Jersey isn’t big enough to force changes where they really need to occur, which is in the packaging of materials at manufacturers and warehouses. I despair when I see the elaborate plastic housing for computer peripherals, or when I open a delivery and find lots of plastic wadding in the cardboard box, and then more plastic around the actual purchase (shrink-wrap is about as minimal as it gets). It would take Federal action, or California, or a multi-state coalition to do that.
Another disappointing feature of the New Jersey law is that it does not become effective for 18 months. There’s no reason a lot of parts of it could not have kicked in much sooner.
And finally, a big tell that the plastics industry did have influence despite whinging not is that it also targets paper bags. Brown paper bags are very high value, and are made from long-fiber pulp. They recycle beautifully into corrugated cardboard, which Americans are now using hand over fist thanks to the Covid-induced spike in home deliveries.
If New Jersey has a problem with brown paper bags, that’s because it’s been too lazy to encourage recycling of them, not because they are a problem per se. Long fiber pulp is either gonna go directly into corrugated cardboard or have an intermediate stop as paper bags. So it’s not as if a paper bag ban would save trees either.
Now to the summaries of the legislation. First from WasteDive:
Both chambers of the New Jersey state legislature passed a broad bill (S864) yesterday that would ban or limit the distribution of single-use plastic carryout bags, single-use paper carryout bags, polystyrene foam food service products and single-use plastic straws.
The plastic bag policy would apply to any “store or food service business,” while the paper bag policy would specifically apply to larger “grocery stores” of a certain size. Polystyrene foam food service product limitations would apply to any “food service business” or person selling food. All policies would take effect within 18 months of the bill’s final approval, with additional foam products phased in later. The straws on request policy would start within one year.
It turns out stores didn’t want to pay more for paper bags and preferred to either have consumers bring reusable bags or have them buy one on premises:
The inclusion of a limitation on paper carryout bags was made to appease food retailers concerned they could end up spending more to provide paper bags if only plastic options went away..
And I hate to sound like a nay-sayer, but a local grocery store here refuses to let me bring in reusable bags, claiming they pose a Covid risk to staff. I am not making this up; it’s store policy.1 Will we some stores similarly pressing their bags (which would have to be purchased) on customers in New Jersey? The governor seems to see this as a feature, not a bug:
[Doug] O’Malley [director of advocacy group Environment New Jersey] also cited [Governor Phil] Murphy’s veto of a related 2018 bill creating fees for single-use carryout bags, which the governor said did not go far enough, as another relevant factor.
“It would not have changed the way people approach the checkout counter,” he said of the prior bill. “Now it’s not ‘paper or plastic?’ It’s ‘can I have your reusable bag?’”
All the reusable grocery store bags here are about a dollar each and sometime are on sale for $0.75. I find it hard to believe any shop will give them away, although the state plans to distribute some for free.
While going after plastic bags is a great start, WasteDive oddly didn’t list other products that will be no-nos, like styrofoam cups and plastic utensils. From Fox5NY:
Some products are exempt until 2024, including long-handled polystyrene spoons, cups of two ounces or less, meat and fish trays, any food product pre-packaged by a manufacturer, and any other foam foodservice item deemed necessary by state regulators.
So those itty bitty dressing and sauce plastic sauce/dressing containers are still on, as are shrink wrap for food, food trays, and those ubiquitous thing baggies for loose vegetables and fruit. Plastic clamshells for salads, berries, tomatoes, and nuts, along with plastic bagged (usually pre-washed) breads, veggies and candy, and plastic internal packaging for cookies are all good to go. Have a hard look at the grocery carts the next time you are at checkout, and do a mental tally of how much plastic the shopping bags contribute to the total volume of plastic. The New Jersey measure is only baby steps compared to the magnitude of the problem.
Remember, we did have grocery stores in the early 1960s, so we managed to get by without all of this food packaging. But those pre-washed salads might have to go.
1 So far I have capitulated, but next time, I need to make them dump the purchased groceries back in my cart and take them to my car and bag them there. I’m sure I’ll get pushback for that too since having someone leave the store with stuff not packed up looks like theft, but they created this problem.