A ban on single-use plastic bags hits New Jersey retailers May 4, yet most residents aren’t aware of what that actually means according to a poll by Monmouth University released last month.
Seven out of 10 people understand to some degree that stores won’t be allowed to give them plastic carryout bags, with 33% of poll respondents saying they’ve “heard a lot” and 37% of respondents saying they’ve “heard a little” about the prohibition. More than half (61%) of residents support a plastic bag ban.
But what many don’t realize is, unique to New Jersey, the bag ban extends to paper bags, too, for retailers with a grocery section of more than 2,500 square feet: only 28% of those polled know that; and fewer than half (47%) support it.
“A lot of people who think that they will simply bag their groceries in paper instead of plastic at the checkout next month are in for a surprise,” said Patrick Murray, who runs the Monmouth poll.
Lou Scaduto Jr., president of Food Circus Supermarkets Inc., said that the paper bag ban makes sense from the retailer side.
“For being able to help the customer and assist them, paper would be a good choice, but the cost of paper is very expensive. A single use plastic bag, depending on the bag, could cost a penny. A paper bag costs about 8 cents. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but at volume, that adds up to a lot,” Scaduto said.
Scaduto has been dealing with a bag ban at two of his five Food Town banner stores for the past year. Atlantic Highlands and Red Bank, where he has stores, both jumped into the bag ban earlier than the state. Like at other grocery stores, reusable bags are available at cost for Food Town customers, but Scaduto’s team also puts out cardboard boxes for customers to pile their hauls into—boxes that other products came to the store in, that they’d otherwise throw in the recycling bin.
Over the past 18 months, the New Jersey Food Council and not-for-profit New Jersey Clean Communities Council ran a statewide Bag Up NJ educational campaign to prepare shoppers for the upcoming ban. Since Gov. Phil Murphy signed the bag ban into law on Nov. 4, 2020, several key players have engaged in statewide campaigns to educate residents.
“This effort features a multitude of messaging to reach all New Jerseyans. There is a website with a toolkit of multi-lingual resources that explains the law and how it affects New Jersey. There’s also a vendor clearinghouse for suppliers, a Food Council podcast on compliance, presentations before the New Jersey League of Municipalities, five NJFC member Working Groups, a video with DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette and a public service announcement for radio and in-store broadcast systems,” NJFC President Linda Doherty said in a statement.
Scaduto gave a nod to the NJFC, saying the group has done a good job educating people and also “a great job in lobbying with Trenton saying ‘you can’t just snap your finger and do this, it’s going to take time to get to this point.’”
Still, the Monmouth poll suggested that that many New Jerseyans are unaware that the state’s ban also precludes them from getting a plastic bag for a small fee, and precludes them from getting a paper bag for a fee in any store with a large grocery section. Exemptions exist: bags used to contain or wrap uncooked meat, fish or poultry; bags used to package loose items; bags used to contain live animals; and bags used to contain food sliced or prepared to order, including soup and hot food, are still allowed.
Laundry, dry cleaning or garment bags remain; bags provided by a pharmacy to carry prescriptions can stay; and newspaper bags get a pass.
Given the confusion about the ban’s extent, New Jersey Retail Merchants Association President John Holub is concerned about how members of the public will treat those on the frontlines of retail.
“Here’s my concern with all this. It’s a state policy that at the end of the day, the retailers, no pun intended, are left holding the bag,” Holub said. “We’re obviously the ones interacting with the customers. Inevitably we’re gonna have people walk in the door that are unaware. We’ll have disgruntled customers. I’m worried about people that are upset about it and they’re gonna take it out on the retailer. Look at how polarized people got with not wanting to wear the mask.”
“People have very specific shopping habits. Now there’ll be an added hurdle to that. I’m just hoping the road to that adjustment isn’t bumpy, and we don’t have mask-like arguments in a store because someone wants to argue the merits of the policy. I’m hoping I’m wrong, I really do,” Holub said.
Retailers are facing the challenge of filling online orders without plastic bags in their own ways. At Food Town, Scaduto’s team is using empty Poland Spring cases. Stop & Shop created a larger reusable bag for their online customers and will add a flat $2.00 reusable bag fee to online orders.
“The one thing I’ve learned about this is it feels like no two retailers are handing this the same. It’s what works best for their business models,” Holub said. “Anywhere you go that you’re going to be walking out with something, your best option would be to just bring a bag.”