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Bye, Bye Plastic Bags

“For over 35 years, thousands of (Clean Ocean Action) Beach Sweep volunteers have collected

over 7.2 million pieces of trash, mostly plastic, off NJ’s beaches.“

- Cindy Zipf, Executive Director of Clean Ocean Action


New Jersey has about 130 miles of coastline and that shoreline plays a significant part in the state’s character, not to mention economy. So perhaps it’s not surprising that plastic ocean pollution has been a driving force behind banning single use plastic bags here. Or that shore towns took the lead. Longport was the first town to address single use plastic bags, enacting a 10 cent fee on all carry out bags in 2015. Long Beach followed in 2017 opting to ban plastic bags outright. ​​The first statewide bill, introduced in 2018, took the more moderate approach calling only for a fee on plastic bags. For this reason, Governor Murphy vetoed the bill, pushing lawmakers for a complete ban. While state lawmakers deliberated, municipalities kept the momentum going and by Jan 2020, more than 100 local ordinances were passed either banning or placing a fee on single use plastic bags.

A new version of the bill was reintroduced in the NJ Senate in December of 2019, banning plastic bags and requiring retailers to offer reusable bags. Senator Sweeny proposed adding a ban on paper bags in the NJ bill after observing a sharp increase in paper bag prices triggered by the New York City ban enacted in 2019. While this change stalled the bill in the Assembly, it’s a significant environmental win. As many of you know, we face a multitude of environmental challenges and where we can, it’s crucial to consider how solutions to one crisis might compound another. Replacing single use plastic with paper would only add to deforestation and the climate crisis. But we digress...


In September 2020, Governor Murphy signed the final bill which is being called the most stringent single use ban in the country. The bill includes:

  • Ban on single use plastic carry out bags

  • Ban on single use paper bags in large grocery stores

  • Ban on polystyrene food service containers

  • Limit provision of plastic straws on request only

“This is an environmental victory that’s been years in the making,” said Amy Goldsmith, NJ State Director, Clean Water Action. “Thank you, Governor Murphy, not once but twice - first for vetoing the 2018 bill that would set back efforts to prevent plastic waste, and now for signing the nation's strongest waste reduction law. It was well worth the wait. New Jersey is now leading the paradigm shift away from single use disposables to reusables.”

The bill takes effect in three stages:

  • Nov 4, 2021 - Requirements for single-use plastic straws.

  • May 4, 2022

    • Ban on single use carry out bags

    • Ban on Polystyrene Foam food service products (with exemptions)

  • May 4, 2024 - Exemptions for Polystyrene Foam food service products expires (can be renewed)

Reusable Bags

Businesses are allowed to offer reusable bags. Great!

Those reusable bags can be made of plastic. Gr...what?!

Along with hemp and other cloth fabrics, the law allows reusable bags to be made of polypropylene fabric, PET non-woven fabric, or nylon. If the goal of this legislation is to reduce plastic pollution by producing less of it, why would we continue to make any plastic carry out bags? Are carry out bags a necessary use of plastic? It seems clear it isn't. (By the way, this is a question we should be asking everywhere we use plastic.) Along with reducing the need to manage plastic waste, eliminating unnecessary uses of plastic reduces the need for plastic production, which in turn lowers our carbon footprint.

Making reusable bags - made with more raw material than single use - with plastic, significantly reduces the impact of this ban. Additionally, micro-plastics can be released into the ocean when these reusable bags are washed.

Thankfully, we have other options:

  • Cloth - natural or recycled cloth bags are the best option, like those offered in local markets or these neat wearable bags.

  • Hemp - often crafted into sturdier styles, these bags can serve well beyond grocery stores. A search on Etsy yields a wide variety of results.

  • Recycled plastic - as a last option, bags made from 100% recycled plastic are an acceptable option as a strategy to clean up already existing plastic.

You can go a step further using cloth or mesh produce bags, which are exempt under this law. Here’s a review of some of the top options. Reusable wine bags are also widely available or if you’re buying a few bottles, most liquor stores are happy to pack your bottles in boxes they would otherwise recycle (great as a paper recycling receptacle at home).

There are secondary uses for single use plastic bags, e.g. for pet owners, that may cause an increase in small trash and pet bag sales. The transition to pet bags has some benefits as their smaller size wastes less plastic per use and there are a wide variety of biodegradable brands. We're keeping an eye out for developments here.

As we shift to reusable bags and set up new habits, let’s be sure to take the boldest step we can.

And stay nimble!


For residents:

For business:

Quotes taken from Governor Murphy’s news release on signing the ban.


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