Will New Jersey follow Ireland, China and ban plastic bags?

New Jersey may be first U.S. state to ban plastic bags

Kate Lieb By Kate Lieb

Shopping may never be the same in New Jersey, where the humble, handy plastic bag faces a possible ban.

The New Jersey legislature heard arguments this month for and against banning plastic bags, or charging customers extra for them. While individual cities have put bans or surcharges on the books, New Jersey would be the first state to do so.

Ban the Plastic Bag Monster? Some countries already have. (Reuters/Francois Lenoir)

According to NJ Spotlight, the issue arose during a hearing on the sorry state of Barnegat Bay. Located in Ocean County, Barnegat Bay has been exposed to a host of problems including plastic bags clogging its storm drains.  Lobbyists say they are promoting recycling plastic bags.

Latitude News went into the streets of New Jersey to hear what locals thought. One New Jerseyite, Cindi, asked what other countries do about bags.

Well, Cindi, China and Ireland are among the dozens of countries across the globe that have some type of plastic bag law on the books currently according to a database compiled by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

China implemented a surcharge on plastic bags four years ago, and says bag use has dropped by 40 percent.

Trash drove Ireland’s 2002 surcharge on plastic bags, too.  “The visible litter issue was the strongest reason for the introduction,” said Tony Lowes, Director of Friends of the Irish Environment. “Plastic bags festooned the urban landscape and countryside.”

Back in March 2002, it cost Irish shoppers 15 cents (19 cents U.S.) for a plastic bag. That went up to 22 cents (27 cents U.S.) in 2007, the charge per bag was, but in 2007 the fee was upped to 22 cents (27 cents U.S.) after per capita use of plastic bags increased in 2006.

Ultimately, Lowes says the law led Irish citizens to change the way they use plastic bags, reduced litter and made people more aware of the issues surrounding single use plastic bags.

Ireland’s law is used as a model by American cities says Jennie Romer, founder and director of PlasticBagLaws.org. Romer wishes California would catch up to Europe, or at least join the debate on the level of New Jersey.

Bag ban? Get outtaheah

Not everybody in New Jersey’s buys that there’s a bag problem. Ralph Hamilton thinks a surcharge creates an economic burden, especially in the wake of the drought in the American Midwest. But, he says, he’s gotten accustomed the government telling people what to do.

Overseas, The Guardian columnist Tanya Gold believes that anti-bag rhetoric is “rubbish.” She blames advocates for stirring things up.

“Some environmentalists liked the war on carrier bags, because they feel they have to congratulate the public for every mirage wandered into,” she writes.

Gold says it might make us feel good to not use plastic bags, but it doesn’t solve our climate issues. In fact, it may make us feel like we’ve done our part to solve them, she says, citing a British Social Attitudes survey showing that the number of respondents who think environmental threats are greatly exaggerated has risen from 24 percent to 37 percent since 2000.

Blowing in the wind

However, New Jersey residents like Catrina Fisher feel that a ban and a surcharge would make people more cognizant about their choices.

“Plastic bags have really become a symbol of waste,” says Romer of PlasticBagLaws.org. “They get picked up in the wind and they’re a big source of litter.”

So it’s odd to hear that paper bags are even worse. “Paper bags have a greater adverse environmental impact if you look at their life cycle,” says Lowes.

In San Francisco, when it banned plastic bags, it also passed a surcharge for paper bags.

Follow the money

Where does the money from the surcharge go exactly? Well, according to Romer the majority of D.C.’s surcharge goes to the Anacostia River Cleanup fund. The river was polluted with litter, including plastic bags. In Ireland, the funds go in part towards environmental causes.

In the California cities with such laws, retailers keep the full paper bag fee to avoid making it into a tax.

Romer wishes the surcharges in various California cities went to a charitable cause. “It would be nice to give back, they’re the ones who are purchasing the bags,” she said.

Even if New Jersey becomes the first state to implement a surcharge on plastic bags, it will still be trailing Rwanda.

Rwanda is one of the most aggressive countries on the planet when it comes to plastic bags. It banned not only use but also manufacturing, importation and sale of them. The result? Less trash on the streets and more tourism, according to Dr. Rose Mukankomeje, Director General of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, during an interview with The Delicious Day.

Audio recorded by Ben Taub, produced by Jack Rodolico.