Time to wean ourselves off plastic shopping bags | Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board

The average American – and you know who you are - uses 500 plastic bags every year. That adds up to 1,500 per household and 100 billion used in the U.S. annually.

Only five percent of those 100 billion are recycled, because they require processing equipment that is different from the systems used by most curbside pickups.

So you can guess the rest: Most of these bags end up in our landfills and incinerators, choke our storm drains, poison our birds and marine life, and taunt the rest of us by rolling through our streets like artificial tumbleweeds.

Eradicating them isimpossible, so the only fair battle is to slap a fee on this ubiquitous scourge and hope shoppers become less inclined to use them.

The bill that passed the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee is anexcellent start. It requires retailers to charge a nickel for every single-use bag starting next summer, allows them keep a penny, and the rest is collected to fund a lead abatement program for water supplies in homes and schools.

Call it a win-win. The lead crisis could be assuaged by the bag fee, and bag reduction creates environmental benefits.

These laws – whether they impose a fee or a ban – are in practice all over the world. Taxes on bags in Ireland and Hong Kong have wiped out more than 90 percent of the supply. In China, fees have reduced their use by 66 percent. Two U.S. states, Hawaii and California, are banning plastic entirely. The first city to take this on, San Francisco, reported a 75 percent decrease in bag usage since it slapped a 10-cent tax on them in 2007.

Here, lawmakers took a middle route. The fee will not increase in 5-cent increments, as was planned. And there won't be a complete bag ban in 2025, as originally conceived. That's a disappointment, but the bill sponsor offers this optimistic spin: "No ban means money keeps flowing into the fund," Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex) says.

The bill also exempts seniors, low-income shoppers, and any store with fewer than 10 locations or less than 2,000 square feet.

So it's not exactly Draconian. Everyone can pitch in. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a co-sponsor, put it this way: "We don't want to burden store operators. We want to change a culture."

If you don't want to pay five cents, keep some bags in the trunk of your car, so you have them before walking into the Shop Rite. Or dig out the stylish, cloth re-usables – they are undoubtedly somewhere in the utility closet, under that floor-to-ceiling mountain of plastic.

More: Recent Star-Ledger editorials.