Contact: Ed Potosnak

O: (609) 331-9922

C: (732) 991-7574


Goodbye plastic bags! I Opinion

Today — Wednesday, May 4 — New Jersey will lead the way by enacting the most consequential plastics and paper bags reduction law in the nation.

This new law is good for the great Garden State. It bans plastic and most paper bags, and polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) food containers, and makes plastic straws available only upon request.

Here’s why the Plastics Pollution Reduction Act is needed:

New Jersey has become ground zero for plastic litter. Surrounded by water on three sides and positioned between New York City and Philadelphia, most of the litter found on our beaches is plastic, and scientists are increasingly finding microplastics in waterways. These small pieces of plastic now permeate our lives: they are in the water we drink, the fish we eat, and the air we breathe. They pose health concerns for New Jersey residents and wildlife.

We’ve also increasingly documented the heart-wrenching occurrence of whales starving to death and washing up on beaches with guts full of plastic and a turtle with a plastic straw stuck up her nose.

The World Economic Forum tells us that if we continue to use single-use plastics at the current rate, by 2050 we will have more plastic than fish in our oceans. The Plastic Pollution Reduction Act bans plastic items that have been most commonly found at cleanups in parks, on the beach, and along roadsides for decades in New Jersey.

We also have a climate crisis that is bringing us increased flooding and, as of last summer, a series of tornadoes. The loss of 30 New Jerseyans last year from Hurricane Ida is a signal of things to come, and if we don’t change now the problem will only get worse. We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much and as quickly as possible to keep the impacts of climate change from increasing exponentially.          

Most single-use plastic products are made from fracking byproducts. During the passage of the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, we testified in hearings and presented at conferences where oil and gas industry advocates confirm they “need” plastics manufacturing to keep the fracking industry economically viable.

In reality, from what science tells us and from what we’re seeing with the recent severe weather events, we need to transition away from fossil fuels.

We also need to create a more equitable society that advances environmental justice and ceases to perpetuate disproportionate levels of pollution in communities where residents are predominantly of color, low-income, and speak English as a second language. These are the very neighborhoods where cracking facilities crack certain gas molecules (ethane) derived from fracking and convert them into other compounds (ethylene) that are used to produce solid, single-use products such as plastic bags. These cracking plants belch cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene into surrounding neighborhoods.

With the Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, we are making big strides to combat the climate crisis and advance environmental justice by banning a variety of single-use plastics. We are following in the footsteps of Europe, the Caribbean and Virgin Islands, Australia, and closer to home, California, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Maine, Chicago, Washington D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia.

We cannot recycle our way out of our plastic habits. Nationally, only about 30% of recycled materials are actually recycled. Up until about three years ago, much of the plastic materials that were recycled in America were shipped to China, India, Indonesia, or Thailand for processing or “disposal.” Unfortunately, disposal often meant tossing American plastic waste in local rivers or the ocean. With more than 9 million tons of plastic entering our oceans globally each year, the volume of plastic material is simply too great to manage even with improved recycling.

The newly banned plastic products in New Jersey require a cultural change and a shift away from “this is the way we’ve always (or at least for the past 40 years) done it.” There’s a lot of bad information out there about the plastics ban from the oil and gas industries that don’t like the change because it will impact their profits. The facts are that the more we reuse a reusable bag, the more efficient it becomes from both a cost per use and use of resources perspective.

New Jersey’s bag ban is the strongest (and we believe the smartest) in the nation because it also bans paper bags for stores larger than 2,500 square feet.

We learned from the bag bans implemented in other countries and states that when single-use plastic bags are banned, the use of paper bags increases. However, paper bags have a high carbon and water use footprint and are not as good as reusable options.

Polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers are also banned because they pose health risks when the container comes in contact with hot foods and beverages and leak probable cancer-causing chemicals into the food, and it cannot be recycled. Also, plastic straws will only be available upon request at bars, restaurants, and food trucks.

Change can be hard, but New Jerseyans are smart, tenacious, and have risen to much more difficult challenges. We want our children and grandchildren to inherit a beautiful state clear of polluted oceans and land. Let’s all do our parts to make this happen.

Jennifer M. Coffey is the executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions (ANJEC).

Ed Potosnak is the executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters (NJLCV)