Will NJ’s Plastic Bag Ban Help the Environment? Here’s what experts say. – Advice Eating

Plastic bags are now as ubiquitous in our natural environment as the air we breathe – they surround us everywhere. According to the United National Environmental Program, up to 5 trillion plastic bags are used around the world each year, and once those bags have served their single-use purpose, the majority will become a problem for planet earth indefinitely. Plastic bags clog our drains, wash up on banks and cling to highway fences. Not even the peaks of Mount Everest and/or the remote Arctic Circle have been spared from plastic bag pollution.

That inescapable reality has in part motivated lawmakers here to pass what is arguably the toughest plastic bag ban in the nation. The new law, signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy back in September 2020, will ban businesses in the state from dispensing single-use plastic bags, Styrofoam food containers and paper bags. After 18 months of preparation for businesses and consumers, the ban finally comes into effect on May 4th.

But if the Environmental Protection Agency reports that 380 billion plastic bags and wrappers are used each year in the US alone, will banning single-use bags in grocery stores make any difference at all? NJ Advance Media recently posed this question to environmental and health experts, and their answers may encourage you to embrace the new legislation and future measures like this.

A Greater Law

Daniela Shebitz, executive director and associate professor in Kean University’s School of Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, said she has confidence that “this type of ban will have a profound impact” in New Jersey, particularly given the progress made elsewhere in the country with less aggressive legislation.

“People will say, ‘Well, people will still use plastic’ — and of course they do — but there’s evidence from places like California that these kinds of bans are working,” Shebitz said.

California’s statewide ban on single-use carrier bags has been in effect since November 2016 and has led to measurable improvements in curbing plastic use since its inception, according to a 2019 report by CalRecycle, the agency charged with administering and enforcing California’s laws assigned to waste management. The report found that in the six months after the bag ban went into effect, customers brought their own bag and did not buy a paper or reusable bag in 86% of transactions. As a result, the number of plastic bags provided to customers was reduced by 85% and the number of paper bags provided to customers by 61%.

New Jersey law goes even further than the Golden State’s ban. While 10 other states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington — have passed some sort of single-use plastic ban, New Jersey’s bill, dubbed the “Trifecta,” is why it doesn’t ban only disposable plastic bags, but also paper bags (at least in grocery stores) and many styrofoam food containers. The law also stipulates that plastic straws will only be available in restaurants upon request.

“It’s going to have a really, really obviously huge environmental impact in so many ways that we’ve been able to see, but in so many ways that we can’t even see anymore,” said Shebitz, a Ph.D. in ecosystem science.

Of course, the proof is in the plastic – or lack thereof. Measuring the effectiveness of the legislation will be up to members of the newly formed Plastics Advisory Council, according to the nonprofit Clean Communities Council and its Bag Up NJ campaign. This 16-member council is part of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and will oversee the implementation of the plastic bag ban and assess its success.

Quick solution? Not as much.

Garden State legislation does not address other pollutants, such as plastic bottles. Pictured here, piles of plastic bottles in plastic bags at Gaeta Recycling Co. Inc in Paterson. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

While Marianne Sullivan agrees that the plastic bag ban that will come into effect in May is “a good first step” in protecting the environment from the harm caused by plastic pollution, the public health professor at William Paterson University said there was still a long way to go . For example, the Garden State legislature contains a number of exemptions and does not address other pollutants such as 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 Sullivan, who specializes in environmental health.

Only a negligible percentage 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 just break down into smaller pieces known as microplastics. The EPA reports that it can take a thousand years for a plastic bag, for example, to decompose in the environment.

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

It’s been fairly well publicized that microplastics have entered aquatic food chains around the world, including here in New Jersey. A 2016 study by the New York-New Jersey Bay Keeper found microplastics in muzzle shells and fins, as well as about 166 million pieces of plastic floating in the waterways of New Jersey and New York. And while the full extent of the impact on human health is still unknown, Sullivan said microplastics are “an emerging human health concern.”

Nicole Davi, an environmental sciences professor and department head at William Paterson University, expressed similar concerns about plastic fragments in our environment, citing a 2019 study that found plastic pollution is so widespread that the average person might not Eating five grams of plastic per week, equivalent to eating a credit card.

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

Davi said she is not citing this alarming statistic to scare the public, but because it emphasizes how “necessary” legislation banning plastic bags is for our survival.

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

Davis’ optimism stands out, especially in light of a sobering February report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which said climate change has already resulted in “some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their capacity to adapt.”

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 the Clean Energy and Sustainability Analytics Center. And he says we mustn’t give up now.

“Yes, it gets late every day, but if we just say no, it won’t make a difference. So if we don’t do anything, it’s a lot worse than doing something,” Lal said.

So no, the plastic bag ban alone will not solve the pollution problem. But Lal said concerted efforts by governments and ordinary people to solve the problem would go a long way towards improving things.

“I always argue that not taking action is basically just adding to the problem, rather than being part of the solution. It’s not that we have to solve the entire problem… but we have to believe that if we take incremental steps, we can effect collective change,” Lal told NJ Advance Media.

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Jackie Roman can be reached at jroman@njadvancemedia.com. Any questions about the bag ban? Ask them here.

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