New Jersey is banning plastic bags. Why are they so dangerous?

2022-04-20 08:54:28 By : Ms. Panda mirror

Joanne Mastropasqua has already made the transition to reusable shopping bags, even though a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags does not take effect until May 4.

The Brick resident said she made the switch because she is concerned about the environment, and she knows eliminating single-use plastic bags from her shopping trips is one way to make a difference.

"We're kind of crunchy people," Mastropasqua said of herself and her husband. "We don't run the water. We recycle every piece of everything." 

She is already ahead of many other New Jersey shoppers, who have just weeks to get used to bringing their own reusable bags — or purchasing them — for most of their shopping runs. 

Once the ban takes effect, most grocery stores will require shoppers to use or purchase reusable bags. Single-use plastic bags and paper shopping bags will be a memory in large, grocery retailers.

Smaller stores and restaurants are also banned from using single-use plastic bags, but will be allowed to use paper bags. 

Mastropasqua said the habit of keeping her car stocked with reusable bags is now "second nature." New Jersey should have moved faster to join other states that have already banned single-use plastic bags, she said.

"You see plastic bags everywhere," said Mastropasqua. "They're in the trees… You see them on the side of the road… If you've ever gone by any of the dumps on Staten Island, they're just flying all over the place."

Environmentalists say banning such bags is a big step toward reducing the ever-growing problem of plastic pollution. 

"There are literally millions of plastic bags littering America, and you can't pick them all up," said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, an environmental organization focused on reducing plastic use and plastic pollution. "Many of them get washed into storm drains and then get into the Atlantic Ocean… They don't degrade for centuries."

But plastic bag manufacturers say forcing consumers to buy reusable bags may exacerbate some environmental problems and be a hardship for some shoppers.  

"What the New Jersey law really does is, by focusing on… aesthetic quality around stitch handles, it's not going to eliminate plastic bags, and that's sort of counterintuitive," said Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, a plastic bag manufacturers' and recyclers' advocacy group.

New Jersey's plastic bag ban law defines reusable bags as being made of a washable fabric, such as cloth or hemp, with a stitched handle that is designed to be used multiple times. Washable plastic-based fabrics like nylon, woven polypropylene fabric, or PET fabric, also known as "polyester," are also acceptable bag materials.

Environmentalists hope they will solve the problem of pollution from single-use plastic bags. Last year, Clean Ocean Action volunteers removed 9,308 plastic bags from New Jersey beaches, according to the environmental group's records.

"I would say like 95% of what we pick up (during beach cleanups) is plastic," says John Weber, a Bradley Beach native who serves as the Mid-Atlantic regional manager for Surfrider Foundation, an environmental organization focused on ocean protection, beach access and reducing plastic use.

For more than a decade, the organization has pushed for the reduction in single-use plastics — bags, straws, foam food containers and bottles — and supported bans in towns and states across the nation.

Coming May 4:NJ's ban on plastic bags, paper bags, food containers

"These laws are an effective way to address that (pollution). Plastic bag laws work," said Weber. Plastic bags are "low-hanging fruit… It's the ultimate single-use plastic item that gets used for five minutes to get groceries from the store to your car, or your car to your house… And then they stick around for a very long time after that."

Single-use plastic bags are also easy to replace with inexpensive, reusable cloth bags, he said.

While environmentalists tout the benefits of eliminating single-use bags, Taylor, of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance said the bag bans could harm jobs, particularly the jobs of more than 20,000 Americans who work in the single-use plastic bag manufacturing sector.

"We're concerned about the… environmental consequences of this, because the reality is that these reusable stitched handle plastic bags are almost predominantly manufactured overseas in countries with some of the worst records around the world on pollution," he said.

Plastic bags, like other plastics, do not degrade. Instead, they break into smaller and smaller pieces and make their way into the environment.

Last year, Rutgers University researchers discovered tiny "microplastics" were washing into the Raritan and Hudson rivers during rainstorms. A plastic found in bottles and trash bags called polyethylene was the most common form of plastic found in those rivers, according to the Rutgers researchers.

Another Rutgers study from 2017 also found high levels of microplastics in the Raritan and Passaic rivers, as well as more than 300 organic chemical compounds that appeared to be related to the plastic pollution.

From such rivers, plastics and their chemicals eventually reach the ocean.

"In the not-too-distant future, there'll be more plastic in the ocean by weight than fish," said Amy Goldsmith, the New Jersey director of Clean Water Action. "If we don't want a world like that, then we need to keep the plastic out of our water."

Once there, plastics can kill animals that become entangled in plastic fishing nets. Plastics are also often swallowed by fish and animals. 

"Wildlife and fish end up starving to death because their stomachs get full of plastic… so they die from that," Goldsmith said. 

In 2019, a plastic bag was responsible for the death of a 600-pound whale in Florida, after the swallowed bag blocked food from entering the whale's digestive tract, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That same year, nine deer were found dead after swallowing plastic bags in Nara Park, a popular tourist destination in Japan, according to BBC news. 

Sea turtles, too, are susceptible. They have been known to mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their staple foods, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. 

The problem is so pervasive that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration now has a "Marine Debris Program" to monitor and respond to the growing issue.

Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, said his team has treated seals and turtles who have swallowed plastics. 

"Part of the problem now is that the plastics are breaking down to micro sizes, and the fish that the animals eat are ingesting it," he said.

The tiny plastics are even making their way through the food chain into the bodies of humans. Last month, researchers in the Netherlands discovered microplastics within human blood samples from 17 out of 22 donors, according to USA TODAY.

Goldsmith, of Clean Water Action, says plastic pollution is not only an environmental crisis, but a human health threat.

"A lot of people depend on our oceans and bays and lakes and rivers for food," she said. 

Yet reusable bags will not solve the plastic problem, Taylor said.

"What are those bags?" he said. "The vast majority of that kind you see at checkout counters right now, (that) are $1 or $2, are made from plastics."

But environmentalists said the benefits gained from using reusable bags over and over will outweigh their downsides and will reduce a major source of plastic pollution. 

"If you're not worried about the whales and the turtles, those smaller and smaller pieces of plastic are getting taken up by microscopic life," said Weber, of Surfrider Foundation. "That's getting eaten by bigger life — tiny, tiny fish — and then they're eaten by bigger fish and then we're eating those fish… Humans are literally eating plastic."

Americans could be eating between 39,000 to 52,000 pieces of microplastic each year, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The single-use bag ban is a step toward getting plastics out of our environment and our bodies, Weber said.

Coupled with other state bans on restaurants and eateries handing out plastic straws and most foam food packaging, New Jersey's law against single-use plastics is one of the strongest in the country, he said.

"It reminds me a little bit of years ago when mandatory recycling programs came into effect," said Enck, of Beyond Plastics. "Some people said, 'Oh, people are not going to recycle. It's too complicated.' Now, it's second nature… And it's a wonderful thing that we can do, as individuals, to have a cleaner and healthier environment."

Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, or 732-557-5701.