New Jersey’s “Best in US” Plastic Ban Still Very Limited, Makes Concessions

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.

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  1. grayslady

    Every grocery store here is prohibiting the use of reuseable bags brought in by customers due to Covid safety measures. The stores are also not accepting collection of used plastic bags on site, and no purchased items may be returned. Other than not accepting returns on purchases, the stores are simply following guidelines issued by the Illinois Dept. of Public Health.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Thanks but this is not a guideline in Alabama, and frankly it appears to be poor advice. CVS and all grocers allow the use of reusable bags. And how is a reusable bag any different than bringing a purse or backpack in and putting items in that?

      This grocer’s real beef appears to be that they don’t have their own branded bags, and they don’t like their groceries going into bags with others store’s names on them.

      Your clothes are a much better Covid vector if you are really worried about fabric. It’s going to be near your breathing and talking all day, while how long are you near that bag? And Covid isn’t removed by washing (laundry soaps have too low detergency) but by letting it sit a day or two (the Covid dies by then).

      Similarly, I am shocked by the returns prohibition, because it indicates unsafe pre-pandemic practices. Our local stores allow returns because “returns” are actually not returned but reimbursed and thrown out. The stores don’t allow any items that left the store to go back on shelves due to tampering concerns.

      1. grayslady

        The IDPH guidelines for groceries (and it’s a long list) are split between protecting shoppers and grocery store workers. Store workers aren’t going to put groceries into your purse or your backpack but, pre-Covid, I routinely saw customers hand over their reusable bags for the cashiers or baggers to fill. A full day of packing up someone’s personal bags could definitely expose a grocery worker to risk, I imagine.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          This store won’t allow me to pack my own reusable bag. They won’t allow it in the cart, hence my comparison to the fabric on my body. That is why I discuss in the footnote that the fallback is hauling the groceries out of the store and bagging them at my car.

          This is not about protecting store workers.

          And there has yet to be a single documented case in the world of fabric as a transmission vector.

    2. Aled

      What if you had a rucksack? How about making reusable bags part of your clothing? Then stripping off for effect …

  2. Another Scott

    Have the people who write these bills ever looked at the amount of waste generated by online purchases? Whenever I get something online and it comes in plastic packaging, the amount of plastic is volumes more than had I bought the same item(s) in person. And I have yet to find a way to reuse the packing materials. The same goes for cardboard. I once ordered a set of knives that had three separate boxes plus additional packaging to make sure that the boxes didn’t move in each other.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes, that was my beef in the post too. There is nothing wrong with going after plastic bags and utensils, but this is virtue-signalling-level action relative to the magnitude of the problem.

      1. Irrational

        Very noticeable how here in Europe all companies have moved to paper-/cardboard-based packaging, even for the filler. So it is possible!

  3. Barry B

    Come on, Yves – a step in the right direction is a step in the right direction. Politics can be hard and plastics companies have tons of lobbying dough to throw around. And frankly, most people like the convenience. Let’s not rage against how little this actually does, and celebrate how far we’ve come, that New Jersey’s law is a huge accomplishment, and that we have still more work to do. We are a democracy that sets the rules, but the political system is not set up to force huge structural changes on the basics of our economy. As a New Jersey resident who has been bringing my own bags into grocery stores for years, and figuratively gag at the sea of yellow plastic bags that routinely exits the stores, I’m proud that my state has taken a small step forward. Being a negative-nellie is not helpful! –Love you, Yves.

    1. Thomas Jennings

      Here in Jersey City there has been a plastic bag ban for a year or so. What have a lot of the larger stores done? Replaced the flimsy plastic bags with “reusable bags” which are just plastic bags made with a thicker plastic.

  4. Rod

    What a conundrum plastic poses.
    Most I talk to agree there is too much–everywhere and around just about everything(a very slight exaggeration).
    Like Consumption is a real ‘package’ deal–product and waste in one initial purchase with more waste immanent.

    We are groomed to accept this through the very process, and presentation, of purchasing–refusing your plastic is, or can , generate a hassle.

    The Dictionary should now define “ubiquitous” with plastic as the example(as a very small example of the framing necessary to extinguish/banish the plastic plague).

    The NJ Law does not implement ‘Chain of Custody’ (Circular Economy of Product), but just aims to Reduce.(a very good and necessary step but NOT the solution)

    Chain of Custody Laws would do more to discourage extraneous production through rising cost of business than asking Manufacturers (and their Product Design and Marketing people) to reduce their product.

    As an aside–I have been using my own bags again, first at the self check then with the cashiers(they do not raise objections) and if someone calls me on it, I just leave the store.(because fomites-v-aerosols)

    1. Rod

      Like Consumption is a real ‘package’ deal–product and waste in one initial purchase with more waste immanent.

      Of course it is, waste of ‘something’ is part and parcel of consuming anything–from the energy used looking for raw materials to the plastic wrap on that ‘Individual Idaho Baking Potatoe’.
      imo, this conflation is also a part of the problem in understanding and addressing this issue.

  5. The Rev Kev

    Maybe the key is that for each State whenever disposable plastic is sold, that a charge is added to pay for the cost of disposing of that plastic. For Amazon, as the shipper of all that plastic they would have to charge their customers this fee which I am betting will result in a lot of push-back by customers about this thus forcing Amazon to replace plastic with say cardboard. But how would you get the States to buy into this idea? Here is my evil idea.

    So I’ll just make up numbers here. Suppose that a disposable plastic bag sells for $1 and it was been worked out that disposing of said disposable bag will cost about $1.50. So each customer would have to pay $2.50 for each bag. And here is the kicker. By Federal law, it would be allowed for each State to round up that cost to the nearest dollar and keep the difference for the State coffers. That would mean that customers would have to pay $3 for each disposable plastic bag which would encourage them to find alternates.

    The State gets to keep 50c of that transaction which does not sound much but you add it up for millions of people on a daily basis and suddenly each State has a legal cash cow that they get to keep which will help them balance the books since the pandemic has sent them all into the red. I’ll think that they will buy into it.

    1. Rod

      That may be the second step there Rev.

      Mom always said “ that’s your mess there, and you need to clean it up”.
      Manufacturing a product that lasts your lifetime is their mess, first and foremost. The manufacturers need to own their responsibility.
      Any negotiation or alt solution needs to emerge from this bottom line, imo.

      If you don’t need all that plastic in your life, why do you accept all of the responsibility for mitigating it?

  6. Heather

    I shop at Natural Grocers every week. They don’t have any kind of bag, plastic or paper, you either bring your own bag, or use one of their boxes that they have lying around. Don’t understand why other stores can’t or won’t do this. And you bag (or box) your own groceries.

  7. Michael McK

    It is a shame they banned paper bags. The authors comments are spot on and if they are littered they will biodegrade. While in a functional GND future they will be made of Hemp, for the time being all hands are needed on deck in defense of our remaining ancient forests and in making all forestry much more gentle.
    In California our law of a few years ago banned plastic bags and mandated a 5 (10?) cent fee for paper ones. Covid rules say we can’t use our own bags now so the fee was eliminated and I am stocking up.
    Oddly, the local Natural foods store says milk in returnable glass bottles is a no go and the glass bottle brand is on the shelves in plastic while the big corporate store in town still has it in glass.

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