New Jersey implemented a ban on single-use plastic and paper bags in 2022.
Plastic consumption in New Jersey spiked by nearly three times from the use of heavier, reusable bags, increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the use of bags by 500 percent.
The reusable bags were used only 2 or 3 times before being misplaced or disposed of—not the 16 times needed to positively impact the environment.
A typical store profits about $200,000 per store location from alternative bag sales.
In 2020, New Jersey passed a law banning single-use plastic and paper bags in all stores and food service businesses—a law that went into effect in May, 2022 that was cheered by “environmental groups.” While the total number of plastic bags did go down by more than 60 percent to 894 million bags, the alternative bags ended up having a much larger carbon footprint with the state’s consumption of plastic for bags spiking by a factor of nearly three. Plastic consumption went from 53 million pounds of plastic before the ban to 151 million pounds following the ban. Most of New Jersey’s stores switched to heavier, reusable shopping bags made with non-woven polypropylene, which uses over 15 times more plastic and generates more than five times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions during production per bag than polyethylene plastic bags. Further, the alternative bags were not widely recycled and do not typically contain any post-consumer recycled materials. Greenhouse gas emissions rose 500 percent compared to the old bags in 2015 as consumers shelled out money for reusable bags at a time when Bidenomics was already pressuring grocery budgets.
According to the study by Freedonia Custom Research, 90 percent of the new reusable bags were used just two or three times and piled up in landfills and homes. In order to have a positive impact on the environment and the state’s plastic consumption, shoppers would have to reuse the bags a minimum of 16 times. Since bags were often misplaced or forgotten when heading out for grocery stores, New Jersey retailers offered alternative bags for sale to fill the void. At the same time that the plastic bag ban took effect, consumers were transitioning to grocery pickup and delivery services, which typically require the use of alternative bags for each transaction. As a result, alternative bag sales grew exponentially and the shift in bag materials proved profitable for retailers. An in-depth cost analysis found a typical store can profit $200,000 per store location from alternative bag sales. For one major retailer, it amounted to an estimated $42 million in profit across all its bag sales in New Jersey. The only ones hurt were consumers, who were forced to buy reusable plastic bags.
New Jersey also prohibits Styrofoam products like cups, plates, takeout cartons, and other food containers and requires consumers to request plastic straws, leaving them to guzzle their drinks if they forget to request one.
Other States’ Plastic Bag Bans
New Jersey is not the only state that has implemented plastic bag bans in an effort to stymie plastic consumption and supposedly benefit the environment. At least 11 other states have bans on plastic grocery bags as well — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. Over 200 counties and municipalities have also enacted ordinances either imposing a fee on plastic bags or banning them outright, including all counties in Hawaii.
In August 2014, California was the first state to enact legislation imposing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. The bill required a 10-cent minimum charge for recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, and compostable bags at certain locations. The ban, which was set to take effect on July 1, 2015, had a referendum that put the issue on the ballot in the November 2016 election. It passed with 52 percent of the vote. Allowing heavier, recyclable plastic bags for a 10-cent fee resulted in an increase in the weight of plastic bags used and thrown out per person.
Some areas traded plastic bags for paper, with or without a fee. Paper bags, while easier to recycle than plastic, require four times the energy to produce and may involve the use of chemicals and fertilizers. Shoppers in Philadelphia, where there was no fee for paper bags, used them at a 157 percent increased rate and had a 91 percent increase in reusable bags.
Issues Found with Plastic Bag Bans
The main alternative, reusable shopping bags, can harbor bacteria and viruses and could facilitate their spread in grocery stores and pharmacies. According to a study of coronaviruses, bacteria and viruses can survive in the tote bags up to nine days.
A number of studies have shown health issues traced to reusable shopping bags. For example, several Oregon teens and adults fell ill after attending a soccer tournament, which was traced to a reusable grocery bag that had been stored in a bathroom used before the outbreak by a person with a norovirus-like illness. Soccer players and their chaperones contracted the virus after touching the contaminated bag or eating food carried in it.
Another study of grocery shoppers’ reusable bags showed large numbers of bacteria in almost all of the randomly-searched bags and coliform bacteria in half of them because the majority of shoppers said they rarely or never washed them. An analysis of an outbreak of a novel swine enteric coronavirus disease in 2013 where millions of American piglets died showed that the reusable feed totes were the most likely cause. The feed bags are often made of the same kind of material as reusable shopping bags.
New Jersey implemented a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2022–the strictest ban on bags in the nation at the time, supposedly to cut back on plastic bags piling up in landfills. Plastic consumption in New Jersey spiked by nearly three times increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the use of bags by 500 percent following the state’s implementation of the ban. New Jersey also banned paper bags making grocery store patrons use reusable totes instead. Shop owners profited from the sale of the reusable bags that were used only 2 or 3 times before being misplaced or disposed of. New Jersey’s plastic bag ban misfired and similar to other green initiatives, no serious cost-benefit analysis was conducted before implementing the ban. This should be a word of caution to policy makers that their forced and rapid push to supposedly environmentally green initiatives does not always get the intended result, and in fact, can result in opposite outcomes, as is the case with grimy reusable food bags.