It took a decade, but New Jersey is a signature away from curbing its obsession with plastic. The historic bill which Gov. Murphy is expected to sign will benefit the environment, our health, our wildlife, and the lives of future generations, and the only question is why we never did this sooner.
Yes, it will be inconvenient at first, because we are comfortable with the way we shop and sip and stash our stuff. But we have 18 months to make this transition, and for those who have lingering doubts — including the many Republicans in both chambers who cast nay votes — remember to weigh them against all of what New Jersey stands to gain.
The law will prohibit the sale of all single-use plastic bags, polystyrene containers, and single-use paper bags, and limit the provision of plastic straws. Considering that New Jerseyans consume 4.4 billion plastic bags annually, that’s a lot to leave behind.
But plastic parishioners need not grieve. The effect will be profound, but the disruption is minimal, given the exceptions to the ban. Light plastic bags will still be used for uncooked meats, poultry and fish. Merchants will still use them for loose items such as vegetables, coffee, and nuts. Your pet shop can still fill them with live fish and insects. They will still be used for newspapers, dry cleaning, and prescription drugs.
And for carting groceries, you probably have a half-dozen heavy-duty reusable bags in the broom closet – just transfer them to your car trunk like the million-plus New Jerseyans who live in the towns that banned plastic long ago.
Then reflect on the good you’re doing.
The cosmetic benefit. No one will miss the ubiquitous plastic tumbleweed, rolling down the street or blowing in the wind — then getting tangled in trees and shrubs and power lines, before ultimately coming to rest in the parks, beaches, and waterways.
The environmental benefit. Bags that reach our landfills sit there for 500 to 1,000 years, and bags that reach our waterways are more devastating. Scientists estimate that 8 million metric tons of plastic trash enter the oceans every year, where they fragment into microparticles and poison the marine life. If trends don’t change, there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish by 2050.
The health benefit. Polystyrene is carcinogenic. It contains benzene and styrene, which leach into the food and drinks it is intended to protect. As early as 1992, the EPA found that nursing infants were exposed to styrene in breast milk. And it does not degrade. “It’s a recycler’s nightmare that stays in our environment for generations,” says Doug O’Malley of Environment New Jersey.
Yes, there is an adjustment, and skeptics will repeat industry jabber.
Even a sage head like Sen. Declan O’Scanlon misses the point: “A major inconvenience,” he calls it. “From a public health perspective, it doesn’t seem like the best idea to force shoppers into bringing rarely cleaned reusable bags that may be laden with viruses or bacteria that have been incubating in a hot car into a store.”
Airball. There are zero studies linking reusable bags with COVID transmission, reusable bags are washable anyway, and the New England Journal of Medicine says plastic holds the virus 72 hours longer than other surfaces it tested.
And if we are still in the grips of COVID when this law takes effect in Spring of 2022, we have far worse problems than our inability to adjust to The Major Inconvenience.
Judith Enck, the former EPA Regional Administrator and President of Beyond Plastics, put it best: “Over time, we got in the habit of wearing seat belts, not smoking indoors, and participating in recycling projects. Remembering to bring your own bag to the supermarket will become second nature. People will adapt. The benefits will be much cleaner communities, beaches and a higher level of protection for the ocean — a key part of New Jersey’s tourist economy.”
There is power in breaking bad habits, no matter how small, and that triumph helps us tackle the bigger ones. There are formidable challenges ahead, but the governor’s signature on the strongest bag ban in the nation signals a very determined start. On issues that matter, Jersey must lead.
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