• Dan Bachalis

Plastic bags, don’t let the door hit you on the way out


Local artist Don Swenson stands amidst the tentacles of his “Leviathan” sculpture, which was made from thousands of plastic bags during Hammonton Green Committee’s 13th Annual Green Day Celebration at Veterans Memorial Park on October 2, 2021. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato)

It is with little regret that New Jersey will bid a fond farewell to single use plastic bags on May 4. Beginning on that blessed date, we’ll be shifting to more sustainable reusable shopping bags. This change in short-term storage vehicles will mean less visual pollution, less damage to wildlife and a bit less microplastics in our environment (which includes our very bodies). Everyone should celebrate this victory for environmental sense.


With it will hopefully come a renewed appreciation for living in a way that has a lower negative impact on our planet, one that eventually actively promotes a healthier ecosphere for all of the folks (human and non-human) who occupy this little space ball we call home.


Not everyone is happy about this sensible move, of course. (This is, after all, the Earth of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra trilogy, where everything has a duality of use and reaction.) The coming abandonment of this pernicious product is mourned by, among others, the plastics, chemical and petroleum industries, which have been complicit in fostering a sad and sick over-reliance on these (and other) shabby representatives of American ingenuity.


While these industries have developed some truly inspiring things, the flimsy plastic bag is not one of them.


Moving to reusable bags and other sturdier longer-term containers will hopefully lead to other actions our civilization takes to reduce the unrestrained flow of toxic substances into our midst.


There are folks, too, who will always look in the rear-view mirror, bemoaning their “loss” of a cat poop bag without thinking through all of their other readily-available options for free bags with which to tidy up after little Tinkerbell: newspaper “sleeves,” produce bags, meat and fish and cheese deli bags, bread bags, even Dunkin’ bags (better used with a handy “pooper scooper”). I’m sure we could develop an even longer list of substitutes for the crummy plastic bag if we put our heads together.


The Leviathan sculpture created by artist Don Swenson sits at Hammonton Lake Park on May 3, the day before New Jersey's plastic bag ban. (THG/Kristin Guglietti)


Besides saying “adieu” to plastic bags on May 4, we’ll also be retiring the Environmental Commission’s “Leviathan,” the giant, plastic-bag-skinned octopus currently holding court in Hammonton Lake Park opposite the playground. This outdoor sculpture has been helping to alert area residents and visitors to the coming bag ban over the past several months. By now, having been exposed to the elements since last fall, the imposing Beast is showing signs of deterioration, as will all plastics let loose in our world.


Although there are suggestions that we repurpose this imaginative teaching tool, it’s more likely that we’ll develop a new concept more aptly suited (and perhaps more environmentally gentle) than this inspired creation. The bags used for the skin, by the way, will be recycled to create park benches and lumber, unlike some 90 percent of all other plastic bags in America (see www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling).


I’d like to thank all those who contributed to the effort to create and deploy (and redeploy) the “Leviathan.” Hats off to the Kienzle children who came up with the idea of a giant beast in the first place, and kudos to their wonderfully supportive parents for helping them express their concerns and ideas publicly at town council and before the Environmental Commission.


Thanks also to the Green Committee’s Amy Menzel, Mica McCullough, and Jeanette DiPiero, to former Councilwoman Brooke Sacco, and to mom Jasmine Kienzle, who participated in the early planning for this work. Local artist Don Swenson designed the working sculpture, and built the wood-and-wire frame throughout the lonely lockdown days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Steve Carr, the always-inspiring principal of the Warehouse 15 Makerspace, provided shelter for the “Leviathan” while we endeavored to finish assembly under lockdown and strict social-distance restrictions; his patience is that of Job (fortunately without all that divinely-instigated suffering).


Amy also brought in the services of several rounds of Mormon volunteers to help sheath our bag monster, and their labors made it possible to deploy “Levi” for Green Day 2021 (again, with generous assistance and a great leviathan of a truck and dexterous staff from Carr’s Warehouse 15). Staff from the Atlantic County Utilities Authority (ACUA) helped deconstruct and move it to ACUA for their annual “America Recycles Day,” and helped deconstruct it again when it came time to return it to Lake Park.


Also, our sincere thanks to Mayor Stephen DiDonato, who gave us permission to set things up in both Veterans Park and Hammonton Lake Park; we greatly appreciate his understanding of the need to inform residents about upcoming events, as well as his patience in allowing this piece an extended residency in our public spaces. Thanks also to my wife Barbara, who still lets me work on crazy stuff like this. Lastly, thank you to the countless residents and visitors to Lake Park—families and individuals and groups of all ages—who stopped in to see what the Leviathan was all about, and who we hope left more aware and inspired about the need to ditch “the bag” (extra thanks to the person who thought the Beast was maybe a Sandworm from Dune—awesome!).


I hope you are all making an inventory of your reusable bags right now, so that you are ready to hit May 4 running when you’re at the store. And if you don’t have any reusable bags by now, then No. 1 you win the Rip Van Winkle Award for missing one of the most visible and largest giveaway trends of the last 10 years, and No. 2 be on the lookout for more upcoming opportunities to get at least one free reusable bag in the coming weeks.


And, if you’re late to the party and you need to actually buy a bag, don’t buy some flimsy thing being offered by various shops that don’t meet the requirements of the bag ban law: among other things, bags should have a stitched handle, which is a good measure of whether it might otherwise be just some shoddy thrown-together mockery of a reusable bag. Get the good stuff, and let’s keep working together to get us all to a smarter, healthier, more sustainable future.



Dan Bachalis is a former town councilman and has served on a number of town committees. He currently serves as the chairman of the Hammonton Environmental Commission and the Lake Water Quality Commission.