To Go Reusable or Use Plastic Bags? That is Again the Question

“It is very important to me to eliminate plastic waste…with Covid-19 you recognize even more how much plastic we have for everything as we wipe our empty plastic bags and everything else immediately before we bring it into the house.” – Sanne Karner, Princeton resident.

Eliminating plastic waste has been a long-time goal for many residents and activists. In New Jersey, the push to encourage reusable bags instead of one-time use bags took a possible step forward just as COVID-19 was making its way state-side. On March 5, 2020 the State Senate voted 22-14 for a state-wide ban on single-use plastic carryout bags, single-use paper carryout bags, take-out foam food service products, and single-use plastic straws (though straws would still be available by request). Now, not only have efforts been halted, they’ve temporarily seen a reversal in attitudes no one could ever have predicted.

Within weeks of this vote, people were told we need to contain germs. Don’t touch things when you go out and use caution bringing outside items into your home. This brought into question whether it might in fact spread germs if people bring reusable items from their homes into public places. There is no scientific confirmation the virus lives on reusable shopping bags though it has been found on certain surfaces days after exposure.

Princeton Health Officer, Jeff Grosser, confirmed the municipal health department has asked local retailers to temporarily promote shopping with single-use bags instead. “It presents that extra exposure point with regards to shopping. Right now people are already on high alert about who they’re coming into contact with and who they’re being exposed to. We’re trying to limit exposure wherever we can.”

McCaffrey’s in Princeton is suggesting customers not bring in reusable bags and those that do enter with them must bag themselves from within their cart and are not allowed to put them on the cashier’s belt or register area. Nearby, Shoprite locations in both Skillman and Lawrenceville are still allowing reusable bags but customers must bag themselves. And down the road at Wegmans they were allowing and bagging reusables for their consumers, however they just changed their policy and now also request customers with reusables bag themselves.

By mid to late March the governors in Massachusetts and New Hampshire ordered temporary state-wide bans on the use of reusable bags in supermarkets. And in Connecticut, the $0.10 bag tax that had been instated to encourage people to bring their own bags to markets was temporarily halted to instead encourage use of single-use plastic that wouldn’t be brought back into a store. The step forward for health took a step backwards on the environment.

Princeton Perspectives polled fifty local residents aged 40-50, raising families in town. Despite the recent turn of events, only one-third of respondents were concerned with bringing reusable bags back and forth to stores. Yet, outside of COVID-19, nearly all respondents support the need to do their part to eliminate plastic waste.

“Before this month, I had been making a real effort to bring my bags to the grocery store. I was successful about 50-60% of the time. I hope to get back to this practice after this crisis has ended,” shared resident Judy Kutin.

There’s also hope from many local activists that after the health crisis we’ll be headed towards a local ban. Upon returning from spring break, Princeton University students from the Princeton Student Climate Initiative in partnership with Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC) were planning to get an online residential survey out to the community to help build support and consensus to pass an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags throughout Princeton. The survey never went out as those students never returned from break, forced instead into remote learning and social distancing by COVID-19. PEC and PU students had also planned to work on buy-in from the local business community.

“We were planning to launch the business survey at a meeting of the Princeton Merchants Association [the week of March 16th] planned by Councilwoman Pirone Lambros and to follow that up with students visiting local businesses to get their input via the survey,” said PEC Chair Sophie Glovier. “Once we had the survey input, we planned to move on to consider various model ordinances that have been developed and implemented by other towns.”

Hopewell Borough, in fact, used a similar model and approved a ban in January. After spending months educating their community and reaching out to local businesses, fifth-graders from Hopewell Elementary School and The Watershed Institute were able to encourage a unanimous vote by the Hopewell Borough Council to prevent local businesses from distributing single-use plastic bags. To assist in the transition, The Watershed has distributed more than 650 reusable bags locally and plans to offer more. The current pandemic is now affecting the start date, which was supposed to be next week on April 22nd (Earth Day!). “Due to the health emergency and the obvious shifting of priorities stemming from the COVID-19 virus, the Borough will suspend the implementation of the single-use plastic bag ban,” confirmed Hopewell Borough Administrator Michele Hovan. “While the ban is important from an environmental standpoint, this is not the time to add regulations and pressures onto to our business community.” At the next regularly scheduled meeting on May 7, 2020 the Borough Council will formally suspend the ban and discuss a new date.

In the meantime, the educational aspect remains important to get buy-in from the public. In passing their bill, the NJ Senate hopes to let New Jersey residents know that in our state alone we go through 4.4 BILLION plastic bags each year. While several retailers collect plastic bags for recycling, most residents erroneously place them in their curb-side bins where they clog the recycling machines. In addition, the legislature and other activists want the public to know that most plastics in general don’t biodegrade but just break down into smaller parts that end up littering our environment. For a state with a robust shoreline, it’s important to understand that scientists have estimated by 2050 there will be a larger mass of plastics in the ocean than fish.

Some in Princeton have been trying for nearly a decade to share statistics like these and enact a change in culture surrounding the use of single-use plastic bags. In 2011, locals partnered with Sustainable Princeton to start the BYOBag Campaign. And while it started conversations and the initiative is still promoted by the Princeton Merchants Association and several local retailers, it is now April 2020 and there remains no formal policy in town. The State Senate made a step forward, but the State Assembly still needs to vote, and Governor Phil Murphy would still need to sign. A bill similar to this one was rejected by the Assembly in January.

Another local attempt was made in 2014. Mercer County tried to move the issue forward with County Executive Brian Hughes and his Freeholders supporting Ballot Question #3, which would have created a $0.05 fee for each single-use plastic bag used by consumers. The question was intended to see how the residents felt about this issue and would have been non-binding, yet it failed. Princeton residents had voted in favor, but overall, the other Mercer County residents did not.

The Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC) has spent this past year trying to regain momentum for this cause. This non-profit works with local and state agencies to try and promote sustainable communities and believes that if enough municipalities pass bans on single-use bags, the state will ultimately create a ban. Members of Princeton Environmental Commission attended an ANJEC training session last summer to learn best practices from other municipalities. They then passed a resolution in late 2019 to support a statewide approach but made a goal of developing an ordinance in Princeton if that didn’t happen soon.

Those Princetonians that responded to our survey seem ready for change. 66% keep a reusable bag in their car at all times.

“Eliminating plastic waste is an aspirational goal and I would go to very extensive lengths to get there,” says local Jim Davidge. “The challenge obviously is that it takes more than 30-40% of the population to elicit this type of change. The entire wholesale and retail supply chains would need to be completely revamped.”

As proven in our poll: while nearly 80% of respondents are inclined to bring a reusable bag with them to the supermarket, 66% of them do not usually bring one into stores like WalMart or Target and only 21% bring them along when shopping for clothing. One respondent suggests more stores should remove packaging options all together, like Costco does and another advises a plastic bag ban like New York state or a surcharge for using plastic bags could better curb the behavior.

“I think I would be better at it if I had no options,” agrees resident Lauren Raivetz. “For example, when we lived abroad, we had to bring our own bags to the store or else we were paying almost $1 for a grocery bag. I think other countries do it better than we do.”

Here at home, the state legislation underway would go further than any state in the union by banning both plastic and paper. It notes that single-use paper carryout bags use as much or more energy and resources to manufacture and transport than single-use plastic carryout bags and contribute to harmful air emissions. It’s important to note that the plastic ban they approved is for bags you would get at the checkout counter and does not include some used for sanitary reasons such as the plastic sliced-deli is put into, those used for loose items like fruit and vegetables and those provided at a dry cleaner to protect your clothes.

The inclusion of the paper bag ban kept a similar bill from moving through the Assembly earlier this year, so it is unclear whether this new bill will move forward. If approved then signed by Governor Murphy, it will take 18 months to go into law. NJ would then join California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont with a state-wide law.

COVID-19 is still here and minimizing the risk of spreading germs remains top priority. If swapping your reusable bag for a plastic one is weighing on you, there is still something you can do to help our environment.

Princeton McCaffrey’s Store Manager Anthony Sanfilippo says they’re still accepting single-use plastics there for recycling. “The bags go in a bin and aren’t touching anything or returned to the shelf or sales floor for consumption. So we’ll still collect them. The maintenance guy takes them away in a sanitary way.”

As soon as the local infrastructure makes it possible again, PEC and other local activists intend to continue their mission to reduce plastic waste and make it the rule of law.

“Princeton residents have been concerned about the pollution caused by single-use plastics for many years,” confirms Glovier. “I do continue to believe that the well documented negative environmental impacts of single-use plastics make it very important that we find a way to do without them.”

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