Will banning plastic bags in New Jersey help the environment? Here’s what the experts say.

At this point, plastic bags are about as ubiquitous in our natural environment as the air we breathe – they’re all around us. Up to 5 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year, according to the United Nations National Environment Program, and once these bags have fulfilled their single-use role, the majority become planet Earth’s problem indefinitely. Plastic bags can clog our storm drains, wash up on shorelines and cling to highway fences. Not even the tops of Mount Everest and or the remote control polar Circle have been spared the trap of plastic bag pollution.

This inescapable reality is part of what motivated lawmakers here to approve what is arguably the toughest plastic bag ban in the country. The new law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in September 2020, will ban businesses in the state from distributing single-use plastic bags, polystyrene food containers and paper bags. After an 18-month preparation period for stores and consumers, the ban will finally come into force on May 4.

But with the Environmental Protection Agency reporting 380 billion plastic bags and wraps used each year in the United States alone, will banning single-use bags in grocery stores in the fourth-smallest state even make a difference? NJ Advance Media recently posed this question to environmental and public health experts and their responses may encourage you to adopt the new legislation and similar future measures.

A more comprehensive law

Daniela Shebitz, executive director and associate professor at Kean University’s School of Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, said she was confident “this type of ban will have a profound effect” in New Jersey, especially if one considers the progress made elsewhere in the country with less aggressive legislation.

“People will say, ‘Well, people are still going to use plastic’ – and of course they do – but there is evidence from places like California that these kinds of bans are having an effect,” said Shebitz.

California’s statewide ban on single-use bags has been in effect since November 2016 and has led to measurable improvements in reducing plastic use since its implementation, according to a CalRecycle 2019 Report, the agency responsible for administering and enforcing California’s waste management laws. The report found that in the six months after the bag ban came into force, in 86% of transactions, customers brought their own bag and did not buy a paper or reusable bag. As a result, there was an 85% reduction in the number of plastic bags and a 61% reduction in the number of paper bags provided to customers.

The New Jersey law goes even further than the Golden State ban. While 10 other states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington — have passed some form of single-use plastic ban, New Jersey’s bill has calls it the “trifecta” because it not only bans single-use plastic bags, but also paper bags (at least in grocery stores) and many polystyrene food containers. The law also makes plastic straws in restaurants available only on request.

“It’s really, really obviously going to have a huge effect on the environment in so many ways that we could see, but in so many ways that we can’t even see anymore,” said Shebitz, a PhD in ecosystem science.

Of course, the proof will be in the plastic – or lack thereof. According to the non-profit organization Clean Communities Council and its Bag Up NJ countryside. Part of the state Department of Environmental Protection, this 16-member board will monitor the implementation of the plastic bag ban and evaluate its success.

Quick fix? Not really.

The Garden State legislation does not address other pollutants, such as plastic bottles, for example. Pictured are mounds of plastic bottles in plastic bags at Gaeta Recycling Co. Inc in Paterson. Patti Sapon | NJ advance media

While Marianne Sullivan agrees that the plastic bag ban coming into force in May is “a good first step” towards protecting the environment from the harms of plastic pollution, the University public health professor William Paterson said there was still a long way to go. For example, Garden State legislation includes a number of exemptions and it doesn’t address other prolific pollutants, like plastic bottles and cutlery.

“It’s true that we already have a lot of plastic in our environment, so we’re going to live with it for a long time,” said environmental health expert Sullivan.

Only a negligible fraction of the plastic waste generated around the world is actually recycled and, in fact, most of the plastic items we use never completely disappear – they simply break down into smaller pieces, called microplastics. The EPA reports that a plastic bag can take a thousand years to break down in the environment, for example.

Some of these microplastics “can be so small that we inhale them into our lungs through the air, we can ingest them in our food and in our water, and we can also eat them when we eat seafood,” explained Sullivan.

It’s been pretty well publicized that microplastics have entered aquatic food chains globally as well as here in New Jersey. A 2016 study by New York-New Jersey Bay Keeper found microplastics in shellfish and fish in the estuary as well as some 166 million pieces of plastic floating in the waterways of New Jersey and New York. And while the full extent of the impact of this on human health is still unknown, Sullivan said microplastics are “an emerging human health issue.”

Nicole Davi, professor of environmental science and department chair at William Paterson University, shared similar concerns about plastic fragments in our environment, citing a 2019 study that found plastic pollution was so prevalent that a average person can ingest five grams of plastic per week, the equivalent of eating a credit card.

“Do you want to eat plastic? Because that’s what’s happening,” Davi said.

Davi said she cites this particular alarming statistic not because she wants to scare the public, but because it highlights how “necessary” plastic bag ban legislation is for our survival.

“I understand that this may be awkward for some people. But it’s one small thing we can do – of the many things we need to do – that can make a difference,” Davi said.

Davi’s optimism stands out, especially in light of a sobering report in February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changewho said that climate change has already resulted in “irreversible impacts, as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their adaptive capacity”.

The deciding factor? You.

We are adapting to new conditions, said Pankaj Lal, professor of earth and environmental studies at Montclair State University and founding director of its Clean Energy and Sustainability Analytics Center. And he says we can’t give up now.

“Yes, it’s getting too late with each passing day, but if we just say no, it won’t make a difference. So if we don’t do something, it’s much worse than doing something,” Lal said.

So no, banning plastic bags alone will not solve the problem of environmental pollution. But Lal said concerted efforts to address the problem, by governments and ordinary people, would go a long way to making things better.

“I always argue that not acting is essentially making the problem worse rather than being part of the solution. It’s not like we have to solve the whole problem…but we have to believe that if we take incremental action, we can make collective change,” Lal told NJ Advance Media.

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Jackie Roman can be contacted at jroman@njadvancemedia.com. Still have questions about the bag ban? Ask them here.

Bryce K. Locke