Who hasn’t purchased a pack of gum, or other small item, only to have it swiftly loaded into a plastic shopping bag for the short journey to their car? More and more, New Jerseyans are realizing the extent of our wasteful plastic bag problem. Sometimes referred to as the “urban tumbleweed,” flimsy single-use bags are not only ugly to look at — often found hanging from trees, gathered in storm drains or washed up on shores — they’re also terrible for the environment. The chemicals in the plastic pose a threat to sea birds and fish, and all too often make their way back into our food.
A municipality in New Jersey has taken an exciting step forward in the fight against the hazards of plastic bags. Recently, the Board of Commissioners in Ventnor enacted an ordinance that would require stores to charge a fee for single-use bags at checkout. Additionally, the green team in Ventnor is applying for money to give the community free reusable bags, proactively addressing the customer convenience issue.
Washington, D.C., has a similar ordinance. Not only did the district cut its plastic bag usage in half, but about half of their businesses actually save money since they do not have to purchase as many plastic bags. California is the only state with an official statewide law, and all of Hawaii’s counties have adopted one as well.
Single-use plastic bags are made of a polymer that takes decades or even centuries to break down. These plastic bags often wind up in the ocean and other waterways, where they pose a danger to marine life and are a real hazard in bays and oceans. Almost 20 percent of plastic debris collected in Jersey’s waterways is plastic bags. All too often, marine animals such as seals and sea turtles are found washed up with stomachs full of plastic. Estimates of the world’s plastic waste range from 5 million to 13 million tons per year.
The first municipality to pass a bag ordinance in New Jersey was Longport. Atlantic County is renowned for environmental efforts, and this fee would be another step forward in the fight to safeguard water and air.
Still, only a handful of other municipalities in New Jersey have a similar ordinance, making Ventnor one of the leaders in the fight against plastic pollution. When he heard about it, Atlantic County Freeholder Chairman Frank Formica stated he is interested in seeing a countywide effort to ban plastic bags, and he believes the board this year is itching to move forward on it. Previous efforts at the state level have not been successful, and it is reassuring and exciting to see local lawmakers taking the lead on this important issue.
We fully support Ventnor’s efforts. With an anti-environmental federal government, local leaders are more important than ever in the fight for clean water and clean air. Addressing plastic pollution is vital to the health and well-being of the oceans, marine life and communities. Ventnor’s meaningful action will have countless benefits and raise the bar for other local and county governments. Ventnor is blazing the trail and showing the country that New Jersey is ready to become a leader in sustainability once again. We are pleased to see action to reduce plastic bag usage.
Ed Potosnak, of Franklin Township, Somerset County, is executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.