More than 50. No wait, definitely at least 100.
Katiuska Tejada-Rivera can’t quite put her finger on how many reusable bags she’s accumulated in the more than four months since New Jersey’s single-use plastic bag ban began. It’s hard to tell based on how she organizes them — stacked and stuffed inside other reusable bags.
“I keep them in the basement,” Tejada-Rivera, a 54-year-old Piscataway mother, told NJ Advance Media. “I have another bag by the door in case I go out to the farmer’s market. Most of them are brand new, even have the tag on them. I use them one time but don’t throw them out.”
While she’s a staunch supporter of the state’s new law, amassing reusable bags through online grocery orders has been the hiccup she wasn’t expecting. Tejada-Rivera joins many Garden State residents, whom since May 4 are finding they have a glut of reusable bags — either from shopping in-person or online orders — that they don’t quite know what to do with.
New Jersey’s law bars grocery stores in the state from using any kind of single-use bags, be it paper or plastic. In-person shoppers can bring their own bags or buy reusable ones there. But most major grocery stores and Instacart — which hosts businesses like Wegmans, Kings, Aldi, Key Foods, and Save A Lot — package online orders in a fresh set of reusable bags every time, either providing them at no cost or charging for them with each order.
“The only glitch so far that we’ve had (during the ban) is the fact that the home delivery of groceries has been interpreted to mean you have to do it in a reusable bag and what’s happening is the number of these bags are accumulating with customers,” state Sen. Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, co-sponsor of the bill to ban plastic bags, said over the phone. “We know it’s a problem. We agree it’s a problem.”
Smith said a solution could be to amend the law to allow grocery delivery services in New Jersey to use paper bags or cardboard boxes for online orders.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is also aware that some home delivery and curbside customers in New Jersey have “a surplus of reusable carryout bags,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.
“While curbside and delivery services have expanded significantly between passage and implementation of the law, the Department intends to work with stakeholders and through the Plastics Advisory Council to find innovative ways that would promote the reusability of these bags,” Hajna said.
A spokeswoman for Shipt, the online platform Target and others delivers through, said delivery drivers purchase reusable bags at checkout in New Jersey unless customers opt to go “bagless.” At Walmart, customers similarly have the option to go bagless when placing an online order (placing a bin or their own bags on the porch for the grocery drop-off) or can purchase blue reusable bags for a fee of $1 each.
“Walmart has been working to identify alternatives to the single-use plastic bag for several years and understand the frustration some shoppers have felt with the transition in N.J.,” said a Walmart spokeswoman, noting that solutions were being considered for the reusable bag issue.
“When our reusable bags have reached their end-of-life, they can be recycled in the plastic recycling containers at the front of our stores,” she added.
But Tejada-Rivera, who primarily uses online shopping because her daughter is a cancer survivor with a weakened immune system, doesn’t want to spend money on reusable bags just to relinquish them shortly after. Not to mention the time, energy and gas money spent doing that every few weeks, she said.
Smith, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, told NJ Advance Media that a bill will likely soon be introduced to address the issue.
“We think the solution to the problem is that grocery deliveries can use paper bags and, or, cardboard boxes, either new or reused …,” Smith said. The alternatives would cost less and be easier to dispose of responsibly. However, the law would have to be amended to allow the use of paper bags which are currently only allowed in small stores and bodegas that take up less than 2,500 feet.
“Help is on the way, because we don’t want to see these reusable bags building up in customers’ homes,” Smith said.
What do I do with my reusable bags?
To be considered a reusable bag, the bag must have handles, be made of some kind of washable fabric, and withstand 125 uses and multiple washes.
But that doesn’t mean they’re ready for curbside recycling.
“Please don’t put reusable bags in your curbside bin,” said JoAnn Gemenden, New Jersey Clean Communities Council executive director, who worked with the state to roll out educational tools for the new law. “As a former recycling coordinator I can attest to the fact that even if certain bags are recyclable, the sorters at the MRF’s (material recycling facilities) are not equipped to manually or optically separate out reusable bags, and most likely the handles will cause the sorters to jam.”
Gemenden suggests looking locally for bins specifically dedicated to the reusable bags you plan to throw away.
What else can you do with your reusable bags?
“It depends on what type of you’re referring to as a ‘reusable bag.’ If you’re referring to a cloth bag, it can be used for storage in your house,” said Maritza Jaugerui, an associate professor of sustainability in the environmental studies program at Stockton University. “You can (also) take them to the store and use them as shopping bags.”
Jaugerui added that, like other environmental policies, those with the fewest financial resources will continue to be the most impacted as they accumulate reusable bags.
“For instance, families without washing machines that use reusable bags,” she said, while discussing the need to sometimes wash reusable bags.
Stefanie Shuman, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, said the company continues to offer reusable bags at a rate of 2 for $1. Shuman noted that the company was still looking for a solution regarding customers amassing reusable bags at home.
In the meantime, she said residents can consider donating reusable bags to a local food bank or pantry. These organizations were granted a six-month reprieve until Nov. 4 before the single-use plastic bag ban impacts them.
Gemenden said the Community FoodBank of New Jersey launched a look-up tool — with help from Wegmans, Stop & Shop, and Wakefern Food Corp. — to allow residents to find a pantry accepting reusable bags near them.
An Instacart spokesman said the company was also exploring bag donation options with retail partners, local non-profits and other groups.
Asked about Smith’s plans to allow grocery deliveries to use paper bags and boxes, an Instacart official said, “As the leading grocery delivery platform, we look forward to further discussing opportunities with legislators and other stakeholders on eco-friendly grocery shopping solutions, such as a sustainable alternative single-use bag.”
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