It doesn’t have to be chaos when the plastic bag ban takes effect in NJ. But it might.

Six or seven years ago, I loaded a bunch of stuff from a shopping cart onto a Target checkout conveyor belt in Boulder, Colorado. A bundled garden hose, some laundry detergent, sundry grocery items. Too much to carry out in my hands, suffice it to say. Obviously so. And the checkout person asked, “Do you want a bag for any of this?” It felt like a joke. “Of course,” I said, incredulously. 

Boulder had recently passed a ban on single-use plastic bags. But you could buy a single-use plastic bag for 10 cents. New Jersey’s ban on single-use plastic bags (and other wasteful, polluting materials), passed last year and set to take effect in May of next year, offers no such bailout. (The ban on plastic straws (unless you ask for one) took effect this week.) And so grocery stores, you may have noticed, are starting to put up signs at checkout counters to warn folks that you’re gonna have to bring your own bags, lest you too end up in a situation wherein you have to carry out groceries by hand or buy reusable bags for a dollar or so.

We’re not ready. We ought to heed the advice on those signs. Get into the habit now. Eventually, as in Boulder, you do remember to bring your bags and, eventually, it becomes easier than using the single-use plastic bags anyway. But, unlike there (and elsewhere) you don’t have the option of buying a bag to bail you out, which quickly becomes routine and perpetuates our nasty plastic pollution problem.

On a recent grocery shopping trip at a perpetually crowded grocery store in Central Jersey, I was one of only a handful of people out of hundreds at that moment who brought their own bags. I don’t say that on some weird, moralizing anti-plastic trip (on the next visit, I forgot the reusable bags. It happens). I say that as someone who really doesn’t want to be in a grocery store any longer than they have to be, who can’t deal with more senselessly angry and frustrated people, and who foresees countless arguments between people who forgot to bring bags, don’t want to bring their own bags, don’t believe in plastic pollution, (you fill in the other reasons) and helpless, undervalued grocery store employees who have to explain the rule a thousand times a day, gumming up the whole, already-gummed-up situation.

Living out of state for a time and then coming back, I was surprised and amused at how readily retailers are willing to give you a single-use plastic bag. Especially juxtaposed with the hesitation retailers (like the Target in Boulder) have with handing them out. (Yes, they’re eventually washing up on beaches around the world and ending up in our bodies once fish eat them and then we eat them, or else falling in actual rain (1,000 tons annually in the just the U.S.’s protected natural areas)… but they’re not gold, and you’re not an asshole for asking for one or a few.) One quart of milk? Might as well put it in a different bag than a different quart of milk—easier to carry. One package of meat? That needs another bag. Bread? Already in a bag, but here’s another one. Though I do have to resist the urge to feel like Captain Planet, it feels novel to tell the cashier at Wawa, “No, don’t reach for that bag for the one Sizzli I’m buying.”

And that’s a problem. Because I’ve been primed for the switch and still I forget to bring reusable bags, as mentioned above, and sometimes I just let my one or two items fall into a plastic bag before I can protest. The fuck is half the state who think it’s government overreach going to say when they can’t get a simple, damn bag?

The bag ban is a massive change, but it’ll be a massive boon for the environment. Since 1950, global annual production of plastics has increased from two million tons to over 381 million tons. A third of that are single-use plastics, which end up, mostly, in landfills—less than 10 percent of plastic bags end up in the recycling bin, and then there’s a whole convoluted controversy about whether or not those bags are actually recycled and if the net benefit of shipping them to a recycling plant (often overseas) and the energy used to repurpose them are worth all the trouble. (Recycling, after all, is largely an invention of the petroleum industry made to lessen our guilt over using plastics.)

But by 2050, scientists estimate that the total weight of plastics will be more than the total weight of fish in our oceans. So drastic change is needed. And if NJ, of all places, can make it work, then other places can, too. It’s tough to be a model for other locales—it doesn’t alleviate the annoyance of having to do it, especially if you don’t give a shit about the world’s oceans. 

But, given the forthcoming boom of hemp farming in the state, and thus the production of hemp-based, biodegradable bags, we have an opportunity to invest in the state while beginning to curb the scourge of plastic pollution. 

So is this going to be a giant pain in the ass, regardless of how you feel about single-use plastics? Yes. Is it going to feel like the mask mandates again, regardless of where you fell on that debate? Yes. Is this going to become needlessly political? Yes. Can’t you already see the anti-ban camp going on and on about the environmental toll of single-use masks and hand wipes and hand sanitizer containers as if they actually give a shit? Yes.

But it’s coming, and maybe it’ll keep plastics out of our bodies. That should be universally appreciated. So, start practicing now. I need to, at least.