To plastic or not to plastic.
That will be the question for New Jerseyans who — after the single-use plastic bag ban starts on May 4 — may find they still have bushels of plastic stuffed in a kitchen drawer or closet at home.
After all, when Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law in the fall of 2020, he called plastic bags “one of the most problematic forms of garbage, leading to millions of discarded bags that stream annually into our landfills, rivers, and oceans.”
You may find yourself in a Catch 22 of sorts. Wanting to take the full environmental-friendly plunge but hard-pressed not to see the convenience of using the bags you already have. So, what’s the best tactic to take?
What should I do in the next month to prepare for the plastic bag ban?
Don’t wait. Just because the single-use plastic bag ban starts May 4 doesn’t mean the next month is a free-for-all. Why not start your own personal bag ban early?
You might be tempted on those grocery runs or quick deli trips in April to stock up on plastic bags. Try not to. Get into the habit of using a reusable bags or other alternatives as soon as you can. You’ll be doing all of the Garden State a favor.
While you’re on this personal mission, remember to be kind. Store staff might just be used to giving you plastic bag, said Kerrie Sendall, an assistant biology professor at Rider University
“I would say 40% of the time I walk out with a plastic bag because (employees) just cannot stop themselves,” said Sendall. “It’s part of their muscle memory at this point, but the little details like that are important. If we can change the mindset that’ll stop them from getting out there in the first place.”
What do I do with the drawer or closet full of plastic grocery bags?
The old age of “reduce, re-use, recycle” is in that order for a reason. Reducing is better for the environment than reusing. But if you’ve already accumulated an overflowing pile of plastic bags, the next best thing to do is repurpose them — not recycle.
“Re-using is better than recycling, for sure,” said Patrick Hossay, a Stockton University professor and Chair of Sustainability and Energy Science at the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
“Because re-using doesn’t require any additional energy. If you recycle a product, you are grinding or melting it down and reprocessing it for new products, so you’re using a fair amount of energy re-manufacturing. Re-using it doesn’t require any additional energy,” Hossay said. “The idea of the reusable bags, is that we make a bag one time and then we use that (multiple times).”
Once the ban starts, non-grocery and retail stores can still provide paper bags. But grocery stores over 2,500 square feet (most are between 12,000 and 40,000 square feet) cannot give out paper bags.
Other tips for re-using both plastic and paper bags you already have at home: find a friend with a pup that could use them for dog waste, or another to gather cat litter and re-house your collection of bags in your trunk so they’ll be at the ready on the next supermarket trip.
If these bags tear or become unusable for other reasons, then you should recycle — lest they end up in a landfill, in a waterway or out on the street, experts told NJ Advance Media.
Where do I recycle plastic grocery bags I have at home?
While you’re being more sustainable why not reduce your carbon footprint by recycling these bags at the very place you shop?
“I know some people who have cabinets full (of plastic bags),” said Sendall. “Most of the big grocery stores do have recycling bins so you can bring your excess bags in there.”
ShopRite, Target and Stop & Shop, as well as other major brands typically have bins accessible outside of stores. But don’t hesitate to call your local grocery store to check if they do as well.
“Stop & Shop has designated plastic bag recycling bins at the entrances of our stores,” said Stefanie Shuman, a Stop & Shop spokeswoman. “Single-use plastic bags in those bins are collected and recycled into composite wood, which is used for things like decking, park benches, and playground equipment.”
But a word of warning: Do not place these plastic bags in the recycling bin you put outside every week.
“While plastic shopping bags are recyclable, they should not be put into your recycling bucket. These bags jam up the processing equipment at recycling centers just like hair jams up the rollers on vacuum cleaners,” according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “Plastic bags should instead be recycled separately through programs established in supermarkets.”
You can use a lookup tool made by Wrap Recycling Action Program, which describes itself as a national public awareness campaign online, to find a recycling bin to drop off plastic bags near you.
You also may not know some towns have long offered these services at nearby centers in order to keep these plastic bags out of single-stream recycling plants.
“(If) residents dispose of plastic bags properly, it would result in a cleaner recycling stream. Because plastic bags account for over 70% of recycling contamination in Middletown, decreasing the number of bags in the (recycling) stream will significantly reduce that percentage,” Middletown officials wrote online when expanding services.
Still have questions about New Jersey’s plastic bag ban? Ask them here.
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Steven Rodas may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.