7 things we learned the first week of N.J.’s strict ban on plastic bags, Styrofoam

New Jersey’s plastic bag ban is officially in effect and NJ Advance Media has been reporting on its initial impact all week. Our reporters visited more than half a dozen large chains throughout the state and talked to dozens of shoppers about the experience. Along the way, there were plenty of lessons to be learned about New Jersey’s strict ban on single-use plastic bags statewide.

The law, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Nov. 4, 2020, means grocery stores, restaurants, schools, delis, movie theaters, food trucks, retail stores and other businesses can no longer hand out or sell single-use plastic bags. It also restricts grocery stores from providing or selling paper bags. Since taking effect Wednesday morning at all New Jersey stores, the reaction from shoppers has been mixed — some welcome the push toward sustainability while others said they were frustrated by the new rules. It’s clear the law will take some getting used to, so here are some takeaways from the first week that may help you adjust.

Customers want free reusable bags

The customers that NJ Advance Media spoke to at half a dozen stores throughout the Garden State on Wednesday said reusable bags should be made available for free. Giveaways have been held by the non-profit NJ Clean Communities Council but stores are not required to hand them out free-of-charge.

“I have a trunk full of the (reusable) bags,” said Paula Fortucci, 78, of Sicklerville while visiting Wegmans in Cherry Hill. “I was ready. But they should make these reusable bags free for people. It’s not right they’re charging for them.”

Mardel Zuniga, 35, of Maple Shade, went grocery shopping with her 8-month-old and 2-year-old in cart. She was not aware the reusable bags stores had at the registers came with an extra fee. She hopes stores consider hosting more giveaways but prefers single-use plastic bags being available in the meantime, she said.

“This is good but it’s bad. It’s good they’re trying to save the planet but what are we supposed to do? It’s inconvenient. I already have to remember to bring the baby bag and other things for them. Now I have to remember to bring these.”

Reminders go a long way

The Wegmans parking lot in Cherry Hill made for a steady stream of shoppers with reusable bags in hand. Some customers didn’t have them when they first got out of the car, but upon seeing a large sign in the grocery store’s parking lot (two at each grocery cart drop-off location) they paused to grab their reusable bags from their trunks.

The ShopRite in Gibbstown had bag ban signs outside as well, except these were on the glass windows. Those unaware of the ban did not see them until they reached the entrance. At Walmart in Cherry Hill, the parking lot had no signs at all. However, an easel at the entrance of the store advertised the ban and friendly staff reminded you as you walked in.

It seemed that at both of these locales and other stores, parking lot signs would go a long way.

And, you should make your own reminder. After unloading your items at home, don’t wait to return a stack of reusable bags to your car or purse for the next shopping trip. This will make it less likely that you forget a bag going forward or get caught bagless when making an unexpected purchase.

Don’t skip the bag, even for a quick run to the store

Just because you’re only picking up a handful of items doesn’t mean you should automatically go bagless. An innocent shopping trip can become a stressful juggling act before you know it.

A croissant at the Wegmans bakery or a latte at the Target Starbucks, for example, may tempt you to grab a quick snack. This becomes a much more difficult proposition when you didn’t buy or bring a reusable bag and you’re balancing two or three items you’ve purchased. So it might help to have at least one reusable bag no matter what.

Plastic bag ban in N.J.

MOM’s Organic Market in Paramus no longer provided single-use plastic carryout bags or paper bags for their customers due to the bag ban in New Jersey. Wednesday, May 4, 2022.Paul Zimmerman | For NJ Advance Media

You can get creative

Shoppers seemed to adapt in the absence of plastic and paper bags at the cash register. For example, customers visiting the the Bergen Town Center in Paramus were observed using shopping bags they received from other retailers in the mall to hold goods purchased from bagless stores like Whole Foods Market and Target.

There was also a surprising amount of people who simply walked out of the store either holding their items or pushing their goods loose in a shopping cart — whether that’s simply because it was the first day of the ban or signifies a consumer preference is another matter.

Free reusable bags would be appreciated

The customers that NJ Advance Media spoke to at half a dozen stores throughout the Garden State on Wednesday said reusable bags should be made available for free. Giveaways have been held by the non-profit NJ Clean Communities Council but stores are not required to hand them out free-of-charge.

“I have a trunk full of the (reusable) bags,” said Paula Fortucci, 78, of Sicklerville while visiting Wegmans in Cherry Hill. “I was ready. But they should make these reusable bags free for people. It’s not right they’re charging for them.”

Mardel Zuniga, 35, of Maple Shade, went grocery shopping with her 8-month-old and 2-year-old in cart. She was not aware the reusable bags stores had at the registers came with an extra fee. She hopes stores consider hosting more giveaways but prefers single-use plastic bags being available in the meantime, she said.

“This is good but it’s bad. It’s good they’re trying to save the planet but what are we supposed to do? It’s inconvenient. I already have to remember to bring the baby bag and other things for them. Now I have to remember to bring these.”

Customers want convenience

One of the most common concerns about the plastic bag ban before it even went into effect was that it would inconvenience consumers. While shoppers certainly seemed to adapt this week, it was clear shoppers just missed the ease of throwing their belongings into a readily available plastic bag.

Bloomfield resident Carlos Pena walked out of the city’s Stop & Shop Wednesday morning with supplies for his daughter’s birthday party that day placed in a shopping cart. It was a smaller load, so he didn’t mind going bagless this time but Pena said he usually has “a lot more items” and relies on plastic grocery store bags to quickly package his goods.

It seems that affordable, plentiful, and centrally located reusable bags available for purchase would go a long way toward winning over customers that once fell back on the ubiquity of plastic bags.

Keep the cart drop-offs full, please

As if there weren’t enough reasons to thank grocery store workers, dozens made rounds into and out of the parking lots Wednesday in New Jersey. They reminded customers about the ban but also — importantly — kept the shopping cart drop-off locations full.

This meant people arriving with a bushel of reusable bags or plastic bags from home immediately had somewhere to place them.

For more information on the ban visit nj.com/plasticbagban. Still have questions about New Jersey’s plastic bag ban? Ask them here.

Jackie Roman may be reached at jroman@njadvancemedia.com. Steven Rodas may be reached at srodas@njadvancemedia.com.

Give a Comment