Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere: Why New Jersey's Plastic Bag Ban is One Step Forward

Sonia Ivancic ’25 in Opinions | September 16, 2022

Each of my grocery store visits this past summer seemed to always be accompanied by a now-familiar sight: an exasperated shopper standing by the check-out area looking at their groceries in dismay. The reason for their exasperation? New Jersey’s plastic bag ban,  the strictest in the country.  

The ban, which went into effect on May 4 as one of the 11 bans across the nation, prohibits stores from providing or selling plastic, styrofoam, or paper bags— with the exception of plastic straws, which can be given to customers on a by-request basis. While the ban technically only applies to retailers who take up 2,500 square feet or larger, small businesses themselves cannot provide styrofoam containers either. Shoppers in New Jersey   must now ensure that they bring reusable bags to the check-out line. If an unfortunate shopper forgets, they must decide whether or not to buy the cheery, reusable store bags that hang conveniently right by the counter. But more often than not, you'll just see shoppers walking back to their cars with carts full of un-bagged groceries.

Still, these inconveniences are more than worth it. After all, plastics are not, and never will be, the way of the future. For most of us, it’s actually basic knowledge: since our elementary school days, we’ve been taught that plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose and that microplastics that end up in natural waterways, contaminate the water we drink and the fish we eat. We have all seen the images of plastic-covered oceans and marine animals struggling to survive while entangled in plastic bags. And yet, even with all of this knowledge, we continued to use plastic unabashedly. New Jersey’s plastic ban may have suddenly burst our bubble of willful ignorance, but we must admit that it was long coming—and well-deserved. 

At one point or another, we have to stop relying so heavily on the things that destroy us. Of course, adjusting to this sudden loss of plastic will not be easy. It will be extremely annoying when we inevitably forget a reusable bag at home and must try to juggle all of our items in our arms. However, habits build over time. This ban will do just that. As there is no way around this new law, people will eventually become accustomed to bringing reusable bags when they shop and become mindful of what containers they use. Humans are built to adapt, and once we do grow comfortable with this not-so-drastic shift in lifestyle, it will even be odd to think back to  when retailers pumped out hundreds of plastic bags a day, or  when we still held plastics and the myriad of problems they caused—including leaking into water, blocking storm drains, and increasing river bank erosion. 

But the ban is not an automatic solution to all of our plastic woes. It is only the first step in a journey along a windy road to sustainability. The next step must be to make the ban more inclusive of all socioeconomic classes. One reform would be increasing access to reusable bags. As the rising demand for reusable bags couples with inflation, the price of resuable bags increases, resulting in small businesses, food pantries, and low-income residents struggling to purchase these alternatives to plastic bags. At the same time, wealthier residents who can afford grocery deliveries can also collect the reusable bags that stores use to package deliveries, letting them idly sit by in their homes. To offset this imbalance, New Jersey should set up a reuse system where residents who have a surplus of bags can drop them off at designated locations around counties. These donated bags can then be given to food pantries and low-income residents. This system will also ensure that reusable bags are continuously reused. When those thick, reusable bags just pile up in people’s homes, they lose their sustainability factor; reusable bags must be reused at least 10 times to account for the extra energy needed to manufacture them.

The third step that the state should take is to ensure widespread communication about the ban both online and in physical stores. For example, while the majority of the state knew about the existence of the plastic bag ban, very few of us knew that the ban included paper bags as well, as they consume massive amounts of energy in production.

The fourth step is perhaps the most difficult one, but the one that we need the most: expand the plastic ban. The general omnipresence of plastic products have made it so that targeting only plastic bags is far from enough to bring about change. New Jersey should also put restrictions on plastic containers for fruits and vegetables, delivery packaging, plastic bottles and plastic cutlery. These bills will fortunately be easier for New Jersey residents to adjust to, thanks to the anti-plastic mindset adopted from the current ban of plastic bags.

But we must remember that New Jersey's efforts to control plastic waste benefits us the most. While the health of animals and nature is a cause for concern, a significant catalyst for this large plastic ban is the possibility that we humans may be ingesting five grams of microplastics per week. Perhaps I’m ending this article on a dire note, but our situation is pretty dire—and we really need to take dire action. So if not even the deaths of millions of animals and the pollution of hundreds of waterways can convince you to reuse and mindfully use your plastics, remind yourself that if we continue to live the way we do, you may be eating a credit card’s worth of plastic each week.