N.J. might require stores sanitize reusable bags, refund shoppers after bag ban goes awry

Published: Sep. 25, 2022

Five months into New Jersey’s ban on plastic — and in grocery stores, paper — bags, it’s been, well, a mixed bag of results.

Customers are still forgetting their bags at home. Some shoppers are even stealing hand baskets. And the real “glitch” in the law, according to a legislator who wrote it, is there’s no good solution for handling online grocery deliveries since the ban includes both paper and plastic.

Online shoppers are ending up with stockpiles of reusable bags that they’re required to buy, or are being given, with every order.

Among the solutions are suggestions to create a system for shoppers to exchange their reusable bags and get a refund, and requiring stores to clean and re-purpose them other shoppers.

Another idea, state Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, co-sponsor of the bill to ban plastic bags, said is to retreat from the ban on paper bags, at least for the next five years for online orders, while stores develop more sustainable and practical alternatives.

Or, they could suggest stores keep their products in the boxes they came in and allow customers to use them rather than their own bags.

Smith says he plans to finalize an amendment to the bill by Oct. 6.

“I have staff looking at how much it costs to sanitize a reusable bag. Obviously sanitizing the bag is cheaper than buying a new bag and that’s what we may require the grocery vendors to do,” Smith said.

“Then there’s another idea: Paper bags (for grocery deliveries). Paper bags are made from 40% post-consumer recycled material meaning they’re bags ready to be recycled,” he added, noting that paper bags may only be allowed for five years for these services. “So the industry knows they’ve got a limited timeframe and have to have better packaging product for the future.”

When lawmakers were writing the plastic bag ban, the grocery store industry lobbied for paper bags to be banned in large stores. Paper bags take more energy to produce than plastic bags, industry experts have said, and they also cost stores more money to stock.

JoAnn Gemenden, the executive director of non-profit New Jersey Clean Communities Council, also said that officials found that in the eight other states where plastic bags were banned, customers tended to switch to paper bags instead of bringing their own bags or using a more sustainable alternative.

The strict ban which began on May 4 does not allow for plastic or paper bags to be sold in most grocery stores — anything with a grocery section that’s 2,500 square feet or larger which includes stores like Target and Walmart. Under the law, Styrofoam-like products also can’t be sold or provided by stores or restaurants.

Most major grocery stores and Instacart, which hosts businesses like Wegmans, Kings, Aldi, Key Foods, and Save A Lot, package online orders in a fresh set of reusable bags each time — providing them at no cost or charging for them with every order.

A spokeswoman for Shipt, the online platform Target and others delivers through, previously said delivery drivers purchase reusable bags at checkout in New Jersey unless customers opt to go “bagless.” At Walmart, customers also have the option to go bagless when ordering online — placing a bin or their own bags on the porch for the grocery drop-off, or bringing them with them at pick-up — or can buy blue reusable bags for a $1 fee.

Even residents who don’t rely on online delivery services, like Stacie Bender of Piscataway, are still ending up with more bags than they need without the option to buy paper. In her case, she said she simply forgets to bring them to the store.

“So then either you have to pile the stuff in the car or you have to buy more (reusable) bags,” said the 54-year-old mother.

Residents have the option to donate their reusable bags to food pantries — which were provided a six-month reprieve from the ban until Nov. 4. However, some shoppers noted that they must pay for the bags each time and prefer to not always give away those same bags.

“My idea is that stores should provide (reusable) bags for free. I mean, we’re spending money in the stores and with prices going up all over the country ... you should give them away as good customer service for shopping,” she said.

Spokespeople for Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Walmart and other brands did not immediately provide comment on the solutions being considered to amend the bag ban in New Jersey.

“We appreciate that lawmakers are revisiting this rule and look forward to working with them on a long-term, sustainable solution,” an official from Instacart said in a statement.

Stop & Shop referred questions to the New Jersey Food Council, which represents about 1,400 supermarkets, independent grocers, and convenience stores up and down the state.

Karen O’Shea, ShopRite spokeswoman, only noted that the store brand has a system in place for customers to recycle reusable bags for online orders.

“Customers who use our online shopping service, known as Order. Pickup. Deliver. (OPD), can return the bags to an OPD associate in the store or when picking up an online order at the store or curbside,” O’Shea said.

Jason Wadsworth, Wegmans category merchant for packaging, energy, and sustainability, warned in a December 2021 meeting with the state Department of Environmental Protection prior to the ban that a glut of reusable bags could be harmful for the environment.

Reached for comment Wednesday, Wadsworth said in a statement, “We have always understood the need to reduce single-use grocery bags. Our thinking on this issue has always been the same: reusable bags, when used as intended — repeatedly and in place of single-use bags, are the best way to solve the environmental challenges of single-use checkout bags.”

Wegmans encourages customers to use reusable bags and charges five cents for paper bags in states that still allow them, Wadsworth said. “On average, we see paper bags used for 20-25% of in-store transactions, while the remaining 75-80% use reusable bags, or no bag at all,” he added.

But Sen. Michael Testa, (R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic) says that paper bags should again be allowed going forward regardless of store size.

“Absolutely, because there’s this unnecessary accumulation of these bags made out of polypropylene that have a stitched handle that are shipped from (outside the U.S.),” Testa said over the phone, adding that the emissions needed to ship the bags compounds the issue. “How much more green can you possibly get than a paper bag that is easily biodegradable, made out of 100% recycled material from a plant in the state of New Jersey?”

Testa added that he expects that many residents are only using reusable bags once, thus creating another negative environmental impact in the state.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-09-26 02:43:40 -0700