Plastic bag ban success comes at a cost, and with opportunities
It’s been well over a year since New Jersey banned the distribution of single-use plastic bags by large supermarkets and other retail establishments. In terms of reducing waste and increasing the overall efficiency of both our businesses and our shopping habits, the ban has been a huge success. One rarely sees plastic bags fluttering in our trees, clogging our streams, lurking in our shrubbery, posing along the highways or floating like misshapen jellyfish in our ocean and our beloved lake.
Retail establishments can save money on not having to provide flimsy plastic bags, hopefully improving their profitability by at least a pinch. Consumers improve their personal eco-friendly scores by using a wide variety of reusable bags, and hopefully are coming to question the wisdom of our “use-once-and-toss” economic habits.
Of course, this enlightened approach to materials and resources usage has its critics, mostly of the “we just don’t like change,” “we’re afraid of the future,” and the “we want to do anything we feel like” varieties, all variations of the spoiled child inside each of us.
To be fair, the implementation of the single-use plastic ban—which also includes plastic straws and Styrofoam—has not been without some bumps along the way. Supermarkets and other retail establishments, which had over a year to prepare for the change, devised a system for order deliveries that exacerbated the generation of surplus reusable bags instead of implementing a reusable box version that included a small refundable deposit so that the boxes would be used multiple times. The resulting glut of reusable bags, which have primarily been manufactured from heavier, more durable forms of plastic instead of cloth, led many opportunistic politicians to use it as an excuse to make hay against their rivals rather than work to develop realistic, positive solutions.
Out of this self-inflicted “problem,” though, arose the opportunity to provide less-well-off fellow citizens with the bags they needed to do their shopping. Environmental groups like our own Green Committee had already run several bag distribution events prior to the ban, but this post-ban glut allowed struggling households to procure needed equipment to adapt to a more efficient economy.
Another glitch—and I think this one rather unforeseen—has been the rise of the durable take-home or leftover container. Since restaurants are now unable legally to use Styrofoam, their suppliers have come up with an amazing variety of take-home containers for leftovers.
Restaurants routinely serve larger-than-necessary portions, and a large proportion of diners need to take home what they cannot reasonably devour at one sitting. Restaurants now use all kinds of containers for these leftovers, including aluminum with plastic or paper/aluminum lids, plastic-lined paper cups and bowls and—my point arriving none too soon—strong plastic #5 containers. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes—square, round, rectangular, with and without internal dividers, hinged one-piece models and more traditional two-piecers, black, white and clear. Most people, returning home after a good meal, will finish off the contents of these little 21st Century MRE packs and then toss away the containers.
Yes, #5 plastic is recyclable, but studies have shown consistently that recycling rates, despite the six decades of having the mandate of recycling drummed into our heads, are consistently low. Our progress over time has ranged from six percent in the 1960s to a high of only 35 percent in 2017. The recycling rate has since shown signs of declining. Unless we find a better way of approaching materials management, we will eventually erase any progress we have made.
The best thing we can do is not generate this waste at all. But failing that, we can improve the efficiency of our materials usage by reusing these #5 containers, just as we now reuse shopping bags. Yes, I am suggesting we all carry one (or two or more) of these containers with us when we dine out (Dunkin’ and similar fast food establishments excepted). Use them to carry our leftovers home, rather than accept another container from the restaurant. We’re already learning to bring our shopping bags with us to market, we can just as easily learn to bring a reusable container when out to eat, thus helping to reduce the amount of junk cluttering our houses and clogging our waste stream, helping to improve the overall energy and resource efficiency of our country.
I am sure some people, afraid to step up and face the consequences of our choices, will see this as a radical suggestion. But recall the mantra: “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.” There’s a reason the second “R” is there: it’s more important than the third!
The idea of reusing these containers is only one among many more-rational alternatives to continuing to bury ourselves in ultimately-toxic waste. Already, our plastic production plagues us with micro- and even smaller nano-particles infesting our food and our own bodies, even our lungs and other internal organs. We can continue to hide from the problem, or we can take reasonable steps to reduce the mountains of garbage we generate. Addressing the problem by exercising more personal responsibility in this manner (a conservative principle of action) will send a strong positive message to younger and future generations that we intend to leave them a better world than we have created to date.
So, take the step: reuse that container! Reduce the amount of plastic we consume, create a more efficient economy, be a positive example to the kids, help us all save money and improve our health and the health of the world around us. We can do this!
Dan Bachalis is the chairperson for both the Hammonton Lake Water Quality Advisory Committee and Environmental Commission.