November 26, 2022

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Paper bags could be back in grocery stores. Why did N.J. ban them in the first place?

4 min read

In the midst of the holidays, New Jerseyans are approaching a sustainable milestone this December: seven months into the single-use plastic bag ban.

Since May 4, the law has banned single-use plastic bags at all store registers, and paper bags at most grocery stores and all big box stores. The bill to ban bags, other single-use plastic items and Styrofoam-like products was signed into law in November 2020, and the state gave stores and consumers 18 months to prepare.

But even with that lead time, things havent quite gone smoothly.

Growing pains amid the new law have included some residents amassing reusable bags they are provided with each online or in-store purchase and customers arriving at some businesses to find no more shopping baskets. Food banks and homeless shelters have also noted that many of the plastic and recyclable bags donated to them temporarily allowed for these organizations which had a reprieve from the ban were found to be unsanitary.

To address at least one of the issues faced so far throughout the Garden State, state officials are considering once again allowing paper bags at all grocery stores for delivery, pick-up and curbside services an aspect of the law which made it among the most strict in the nation. A bill, S-3114, is currently pending a vote by the state Senate. If also approved by the state Assembly and signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, it would allow paper bags for online services at grocery stores that are 2,500 square feet or larger, which is most, for three years in order to give stores more time to adjust to the ban.

State Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill, which was not voted on this week as initially scheduled. Still, earlier this month, he said the aim was to amend the bag ban before the end of the year.

With the prospect of paper bags returning in the state, at least in some capacity, some may be wondering: Why were they banned in the first place?

From an ecological standpoint, a lot more energy and natural resources go into making paper bags, JoAnn Gemenden, the executive director of New Jersey Clean Communities Council, told NJ Advance Media.

When lawmakers were writing the plastic bag ban, the grocery store industry lobbied for paper bags to be banned in large stores not smaller delis, bodegas and convenience stores where they are still allowed, officials said. Paper bags use up more energy to produce than plastic bags, industry experts have said, and they also cost stores more money to stock.

We were supportive of banning single use shopping bags that includes both paper and plastic, and fully supporting reusable bags as the alternative, said Linda Doherty, president and CEO of the NJ Food Council, which represents about 1,400 supermarkets, independent grocers, and convenience stores.

This meets environmental and anti-litter goals, and keeps our communities clean, Doherty added.

Officials from the New Jersey Clean Communities Council, a non-profit which partnered with the state to roll out the ban and has provided educational resources to help shoppers adjust, said manufacturing paper bags requires large inputs of water, energy, chemicals, and wood. It also produces wastes and emissions that must be controlled or treated, organizers there said.

Additionally, paper bags require ten times the amount of trucks to deliver the same quantity of bags, resulting in increased truck traffic and diesel emissions, the organization states online.

Gemenden also noted that as they helped to shape New Jerseys bag ban, environmental advocates considered what other states had done as well.

I think there were eight states that banned plastic bags before New Jersey. We were the ninth state to ban plastic bags, and the only one to ban paper, Gemenden said. Obviously, its not just about littering its also about getting people to go reusable.

Doherty, of the New Jersey Food Council, said the organization opposes the return of paper bags as an option for delivery and curbside for grocery stores.

The law is working, Doherty said. It was intended to eliminate single use paper and plastic bags, and New Jersey food retailers have done just that by eliminating tens of millions single-use paper bags and billions of plastic shopping bags from the waste stream in this short period of time.

In the first five months the plastic bag ban was in place, New Jersey food retailers eliminated over 13 million single-use paper bags and 688 million plastic bags per month from the waste stream, the New Jersey Food Council said.

According to the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, a group that represents the U.S. plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industry, when compared to making plastic bags, making paper bags takes more than three times more energy, requires five times as much solid waste to produce and uses 17 times more water.

Some businesses that sell food but not considered grocery stores and thus still allowed to use paper bags in New Jersey include coffee shops, vending trucks or carts, food trucks, movie theaters, institutional cafeterias (e.g., a hospital, college dining area or office building cafeteria) and liquor stores. Shoppers can also continue to buy packages of brown paper bags, like youd pack a lunch in, and large lawn bags.

Retail stores can keep using paper bags, charge a nominal fee for them (usually around ten cents) or opt to stop carrying them altogether. Some examples of retail stores include clothing stores, office supply stores and craft stores.

For more information on the ban visit nj.com/plasticbagban.

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Steven Rodas may be reached at srodas@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @stevenrodasnj.