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Wegmans Exec to New Jersey: Bag Ban Means More Plastic, Not Less

Everyone wants to do “what is right for the environment.” But what about when the proposed solution is worse than the supposed problem?

Wegmans, a regional supermarket chain with 107 stores, announced in April it is eliminating plastic shopping bags from all of its locations by the end of 2022. It plans to shift all customers to stitched-handle reusable bags instead. They are also made of plastic (polypropylene)—and usually imported from China, unlike single-use bags made in the U.S.—but Wegmans considers them “the best option to solve the environmental challenge of single-use grocery bags.”

“We understand shoppers are accustomed to receiving plastic bags at checkout and losing that option requires a significant change,” said Jason Wadsworth, Wegmans’ category merchant for packaging, energy, and sustainability in a press release. “We are here to help our customers with this transition as we focus on doing what is right for the environment.”

But in a December 2021 pre-enforcement meeting with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Wadsworth raised questions about the net impact of the new policy on the environment. (New Jersey banned plastic grocery bags beginning May 4, 2022.)

According to publicly-available transcripts of the meeting, Wadsworth noted that by completely ending the use of traditional plastic shopping bags or paper bags the grocery chain would be sending a steady supply of the stitched-handle bags via home delivery services like Instacart, which Wegmans uses for online food orders.

“We’re working on that and hopefully we’ll have a solution soon. But even whether it’s a recycling solution, just think about the bags (that) are manufactured using plastic, a thicker plastic.” And because reusable bags require so much more plastic to manufacture than traditional shopping bags, the net result could be more plastic in the supply chain, not less.

“So, if we just go by the principles of reduce, reuse, recycle, we are increasing the amount of material being used compared to a paper bag and that supply chain from China, which is where these bags are manufactured,” Wadsworth went on. “If you were just to use it once and recycle it, that becomes more problematic than a paper bag that gets recycled after one use, so just making those comparisons.”

Wadsworth’s words were prophetic. Just four months after New Jersey’s ban on single-use shopping bags was imposed, shoppers complain they are being buried under mounds of the larger, stitched-handle plastic bags.

“They may be reusable bags, but in too many cases they are only being used once,” said New Jersey state Sen. Michael Testa (R).  “It is a waste of money that is burdening the state’s employers and piling on to product costs, compounding the impact of 8 percent inflation.”

Even one sponsor of the bag ban acknowledged the problem, which he dismissed as a “glitch.”

“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) told Staten Island Live. “We know it’s a problem. We agree it’s a problem.”

In the 2021 meeting, Wadsworth also pointed out that proponents of reusable bags were pushing recycling as a solution, but that was not feasible, either. While a tag on reusable bags from Wegmans instructs customers to return them to a Wegmans Service Desk for recycling purposes, “there is no mechanism to recycle these reusable bags,” he said.

According to John Tierney, contributing editor at the City Journal, the entire conversation around stitched handle bags is off the scientific mark.

“They are worse for the environment, they are less healthy, and they are more expensive,” said Tierney.

A science writer known for New York Times articles including “Recycling is garbage,” Tierney considers the single-use plastic bag a miracle of economic and environmental efficiency.

“It takes very little energy to create it, transport it, takes up little room in landfills and these multiple-use plastic bags involve a lot more greenhouse gas emissions because it takes more energy to make them and to transport them and people do not use them often enough to offset those extra greenhouse gas emissions,” Tierney added. “By banning single-use plastic bags, you are actually increasing carbon emissions and you’re inconveniencing people.”

And, said Testa, you are costing New Jersey jobs by importing the bags from China instead of buying local.

“These imported carriers, specifically allowed by the current law, are all manufactured overseas, and they cannot be recycled in the U.S. This is what happens when legislation is rushed through and proponents refuse to listen to reason,” Testa pointed out. “The restriction should have been designed to utilize bags made in America and recyclable in America. It is more important to get things done right than it is to get it done fast.”

Julian Morris, senior fellow for Reason Foundation and author of “How Green Is That Grocery Bag?” also says the common plastic bags being replaced are the better option for people and the planet.

“You’re moving a heavier, oil-derived bag or cloth bag thousands of miles in order to get it to the United States, whereas the ones that are produced here are made from natural gas,” Morris said.

As for the issue of plastic bags being found in streets and other areas, Morris said that is an indicator that littering is a problem that should be addressed.

“It could be the sanitation department not doing its job or the public could be doing more to litter less,” said Morris. “Try to encourage your citizens to behave better and also maybe engage in cleanup campaigns as well as your sanitation department doing its job properly.”

All things considered, Tierney said, banning plastic bags is nothing but virtue signaling that is bad for the environment and bad for the consumers.

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Easttown Township Supervisors Vote to Ban Single-Use Plastic Bags

The Easttown Township Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to ban single-use plastic carry-out bags at their bi-weekly meeting Monday night.

The township released a statement beforehand on the issue saying, “The use of single-use plastic bags has severe environmental impacts, including entering local waterways, causing harm to wildlife and littering the environment, becoming stuck in or upon natural resources and public property, and blocking storm drains.”

According to the ordinance draft, numerous commercial establishments within the township provide single-use plastic bags to their customers.

The taxpayers of Easttown already pay the costs related to the cleanup of single-use plastic bags from the roadways, trees, sewers, waters, and parks within the township. From an overall environmental and economic perspective, the best alternative to address this situation is to ban single-use plastic carry-out bags, the supervisors said in their statement.

“I think this motion is a great start for our community to address this issue and will directly benefit our residents,” Supervisor Betsy Fadem said.

The law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023, at which time no commercial establishment will be allowed to provide any customer with a single-use plastic bag. Establishments that don’t comply after an initial written warning notice will also be liable for a violation.

The measure does allow businesses to provide a customer with a bag that complies with the ordinance at the point of sale. The store must charge not less than 15 cents for those bags provided to the customers.

“I agree with my fellow supervisors that this ordinance is a good sign of progress for our township to be cleaner and more environmentally friendly,” Supervisors Chair Beth D’Antonio said.

One woman objected to the move.

“I’m not supportive of the ban because I’m skeptical about whether paper bags are a better solution than plastic bags. I also wonder about the sanitation of those reusable bags that customers bring and how often they are cleaned after each use,” she said.

Board members also said that this plastic bag ban would conserve resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as waste, litter, and water pollution while improving the quality of life for the township residents and visitors.

However, the data are clear that plastic shopping bags have a smaller carbon footprint than the alternatives. Environmental reporter John Tierney rejects the claim that “single-use plastic bags are the worst environmental choice at the supermarket. Wrong: they’re the best choice.”

And other environmentalists say plastics help the environment by reducing the harvest of similar renewable resources from wildlife and the environment in general. They point out the problem is actually litter, not plastic.

Several other Delaware Valley municipalities have also imposed plastic bag bans, including Philadelphia, West Chester, and Narberth.

However, one downside of the anti-plastic push is that it will put jobs throughout the Commonwealth at risk.

Pennsylvania has approximately 37,221 plastic-related jobs, including 6,931 in the Delaware Valley. In 2019, plastic product manufacturing generated $11.5 billion in economic output and paid $2.1 billion in employee compensation per year.

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Should the Delaware Valley Follow New Jersey’s Strict Plastic Bag Ban?

New Jersey has banned food service businesses, grocery stores, and retail stores from providing single-use plastic bags in a cause celebre for anti-plastic activists. But one critic says that move flies in the face of scientific fact.

Many Delaware Valley residents are preparing for their municipalities to jump on the bag ban bandwagon. And several towns are already on board.

At least eight other states have a similar plastic bag ban, and Philadelphia and other big cities such as Boston and Los Angeles have also instituted them.

Zach Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, notes the downside of bag bans.

“Regardless of the policy specifics, bans force retailers and consumers to switch to products that are often made from plastic, are nonrecyclable, and have greater environmental impacts than the products they replace,” Taylor said. “It’s hard to see how policies that require bags with worse environmental profiles advance the sustainability goals that supposedly underpin these regulations.”

And for thousands of Pennsylvania workers, plastic represents something else entirely: Good-paying jobs. Approximately 37,221 plastics-related jobs are in Pennsylvania. Some 6,931 of them are in Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties.

In April, an eight-to-one vote by the Haverford Township Board of Commissioners made it the first in Delaware County to ban single-use plastic bags. Beginning in January, businesses will no longer be allowed to provide customers with beverage stirrers or plastic take-out bags, and plastic straws will only be available upon request.

Commissioner Conor Quinn was the only commissioner who voted against the ban. His objection was the inclusion of plastic straws. In Quinn’s work with people living with ALS, he told WHYY that many of those people would need straws in public facilities and he does not believe they should have to go out of their way to ask for them.

Climate change and concerns about litter are the primary motives for the bans. According to the regulation, single-use plastic bags, beverage stirrers, and straws degrade more slowly than recyclable alternatives. Enacting significant restrictions on them is intended to improve the health of the environment and its people.

Joy Baxter, a resident of Havertown, told PhillyVoice she previously wrote to the Board of Commissioners about pursuing a plastic bag ban to decrease litter in Havertown’s waterways.

“We are already dealing with the impacts of single-use plastic litter,” Baxter said. “We should be the ones enacting legislation to deal with it.”

Other Delaware Valley municipalities, including Radnor and Tredyffrin Townships, are considering their single-use plastic regulations. And Narberth was the first to enact a ban but took the state to court to be allowed to enforce it. Eventually, that case, which Lower Merion and Philadelphia joined, died after the legislature removed the section barring municipalities from enacting plastic bag bans from a fiscal bill.

After the July 2019 Borough Council approval, West Chester has implemented its plastic bag ban as of Jan. 1. While paper bags are permitted as an alternative, they must consist of recycled content and also be recyclable.

Businesses must charge and disclose a 10-cent fee on each bag provided to customers. That regulation does not apply to product packaging or bags without handles used to wrap raw food products such as fish and meat, which could otherwise represent a health hazard.

The New Jersey law is more strict. It requires restaurants and food trucks to stop serving takeout food in Styrofoam-like products. Grocery stores and retailers must also stop selling polystyrene foam products like plates and cups. In fact, New Jersey is the first state to take the extreme step of outlawing paper bags in stores larger than 2,500 square feet.

Those policies are based on politics and posturing, critics say, not science.

“Single-use plastic bags are the worst environmental choice at the supermarket? Wrong: they’re the best choice,” wrote environmental journalist John Tierney in the City Journal. He reports that because single-use bags are so thin and light it takes little energy to ship them — unlike paper or reusable manufactured bags. It also takes far more carbon to make the other bags, which means “the net effect of banning plastic grocery bags is more global warming. Exactly how much more depends on which researchers’ life-cycle analysis you choose, but there’s definitely more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

At least one resident thinks the ordinance creates a big hassle but with little net effect.

“I don’t mind doing my share to make West Chester a better place for all of us,” said Anita Edgarian. “I like the idea of getting away from plastic bags. However, there has to be a multi-prong approach. How about all the plastic water bottles that are being sold? What do we do about drinks and take-out boxes? Do we have a plan for that?

“It seems useless if we don’t have a manageable plan for the rest of plastic or Styrofoam waste and we only ban plastic bags,” she said. “Most importantly it is hypocritical when leaders fly their private jets to meet and make decisions about the environment for the average person who buys a dozen eggs and can’t have a bag to carry them out.

“Ask anyone who has unwrapped a toy,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be better for the environment if the toy manufacturers didn’t waste so much plastic and cardboard to package toys?”

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