N.J. plastic bag ban: 23 answers to your urgent questions

Maybe you’ve seen the signs at your local grocery store. New Jersey’s plastic bag ban — about to be the strictest in the nation — is starting May 4 and shoppers need to be prepared.

While the law may sound confusing, especially with many exemptions and rules that other states don’t have, it’s pretty straightforward. To help New Jersey shoppers get prepared, we’re answering some of the most common questions you’ve been sending us, either by email or on our social media pages.

If you still have more questions, let us know on this form, or check out nj.com/plasticbagban to find all of coverage on the topic so far.

1. What happens when the law goes into effect?

Starting May 4, stores throughout the state will no longer be able to give you a single-use plastic bag when you check out at the cash register. They can’t sell it to you either. The reason New Jersey’s law is the strictest in the nation is that it goes one step further and also bans grocery stores from giving or selling paper bags too. Instead, they can sell you reusable bags — or if they want, they can give them for free.

2. Can I keep using my stash of plastic bags or paper bags at the grocery store?

Yes. If you are like most people and have stockpiled a bunch of those single-use bags or paper bags, you can still bring those to be used at the checkout if you want. The idea here is to get us all to reduce our plastic consumption.

3. Do I have to bring a reusable bag to the grocery store?

No. You can bring whatever type of container you want — cardboard box, big purse, laundry basket, whatever — or carry your purchase out in your arms.

4. What if I forget my bags?

Most stores will likely have reusable bags available for purchase but there’s nothing in the law requiring that. So you might want to start stocking up on reusable bags you can store in your car or stash in your pocket.

5. I shop for my groceries online and get them delivered or do curbside pickup. How is that going to work?

For the most part, stores seem to still be figuring that out since they can’t use paper bags, either. Some have said they’ll require customers to purchase reusable bags each time they complete an order and will have a program to donate those bags to food pantries. Others have said a bag exchange, where you purchase the reusable bags once and then exchange them on your next order, is a possibility. But in some cases, there are concerns about this not being hygienic. Once we know more, we’ll share that with our readers.

6. Can I still buy plastic bags online or in stores?

Yes. You’ll still be able to buy and use plastic trash bags, sandwich bags, freezer bags, and dog waste bags. Even the single-use plastic bags that stores have been using can still be bought online and delivered to New Jersey. But, environmental advocates are hoping you won’t.

7. Can I still use plastic bags in my house like in my trash can?

Sure. You can use up that stash of plastic bags for your bathroom trash can, or to scoop your pet waste. Reusing (over and over, not just once) is actually better than recycling, experts say. But once they’re gone, you might need to find an alternative.

N.J. plastic bag ban: 23 answers to your urgent questions

Stop & Shop in Union. Beginning May 4, 2022, grocery stores, food service businesses and other retail stores in New Jersey are prohibited from providing or selling customers with single-use plastic carryout bags.Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

8. Are those plastic produce bags still going to be available?

Yes. You can still pack up your peppers in those produce bags you find at the store. But maybe now’s a good time to invest in something else like a mesh bag or go bagless.

9. What about plastic bags they wrap seafood or meat in, or bags for my bagels?

Those are allowed. There are a bunch of other exceptions, including dry cleaning bags, plastic pharmacy bags, newspaper bags, bags for loose bulk food (like baked goods, nuts, coffee, etc), bags at the pet store for live animals like crickets or goldfish, bags for small hardware items.

10. I used those bags for dog waste and cat litter, so what am I going to do now?

Now’s the time to get creative and do a bit of research. There are biodegradable bags available for pet waste, as well as other options like using paper bags, newspaper, composting or sometimes flushing waste, depending on your wastewater system.

11. Will the stores be bagging our groceries with the bags we bring?

Some shoppers have said their stores stopped bagging into reusable bags when COVID started, for sanitary reasons, so there are concerns that will continue. But, it depends on the store, so check with the ones you shop at most. Stop & Shop said they will bag your groceries into your reusable bags. Aldi, on the other hand, has always had customers do their own bagging.

Plastic bag ban begins May 4th

Stop & Shop in Union. Beginning May 4, 2022, grocery stores, food service businesses and other retail stores in New Jersey are prohibited from providing or selling customers with single-use plastic carryout bags.Tuesday, March 29, 2022. Patti Sapone | NJ Advance Media

12. What’s the best way to clean my reusable bags?

It depends on the bag. Some, like canvas, you might be able to throw in the washing machine and dryer. Others like polypropylene bags or insulated bags you’re better off wiping out by hand with soapy water or disinfecting wipes, according to GoodHousekeeping.com.

13. Why are paper bags banned from grocery stores? Aren’t they OK for the environment?

Sure, you can recycle them, but they’re actually worse for the environment to make. They’re also more expensive. “Single-use paper carryout bags use as much or more energy and resources to manufacture and transport than single-use plastic carryout bags and contribute to harmful air emissions,” according to the legislation. A 2014 study from the Progressive Bag Alliance found that making plastic bags uses more fossil fuels than plastic, produce more solid waste than plastic, and create more greenhouse gas emissions than plastic. It also takes more water to make them.

14. Can I still buy paper bags, like lunch bags and lawn clippings bags?

Yes. Those bags will still be sold in grocery stores or stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s.

15. Is this really going to help the environment if so much plastic is still being used elsewhere in our lives?

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 380 billion plastic bags and wraps are used each year in the U.S alone and most end up as litter. While the plastic bag ban is just one step, environmental advocates hope it will get consumers thinking about other ways to reduce their plastic consumption.

16. Will there be any assistance for people who can’t buy reusable bags?

Keep an eye out for chances to get free reusable bags. Some towns — like Cherry Hill, Sparta and Flemington — will be giving them away to residents. In some cases, the towns will be using Clean Communities grants to purchase the bags.

17. Will grocery stores still have bins for us to recycle single-use bags?

It depends on the store, so check with the ones you shop at most. Stop & Shop said it will continue to have the bins available.

18. Do we have to bring reusable bags to stores like Home Depot, Kohl’s, or Macy’s?

The plastic bag ban applies to retail stores, convenience stores, liquor stores, pharmacies, restaurants, coffee shops, food trucks, movie theaters and cafeterias. These stores will be allowed to use paper bags and they might also opt to sell reusable bags, but be prepared to BYOB.

19. Does the law apply to food pantries?

Yes, but they’ve been given a six-month extension to make the switch. The state is also distributing 500,000 reusable bags to food pantries to help get them started.

Stockton University Stores Phase Out Plastic Bags Ahead of NJ Statewide Ban

Food vendors at Stockton University provide only paper bags for takeaway food orders on April 5, 2022 at Stockton University in Galloway, NJ as New Jersey moves to ban single-use plastic bags.Jim Lowney For NJ Advance Media

20. Will restaurants be allowed to deliver food in plastic or paper bags?

Only paper bags or reusable bags are allowed. Not plastic. In addition, restaurants can’t use styrofoam-type containers for take-out food.

21. Are plastic straws also banned?

No. Restaurants can only give them to you if you ask for one, though. That law went into effect in November.

22. Can I still buy styrofoam plates and cups at the grocery store?

No, those items won’t be allowed to be purchased in stores starting May 4. Plastic utensils, plates and cups are allowed, as are paper plates and cups, but nothing made of polystyrene, according to the state.

23. I’m a business owner with more questions. Where can I find help?

Go to business.nj.gov. There is a live chat option to talk to business experts and more information available.

Reporters Steven Rodas, Katie Kausch and Jackie Roman contributed to this report.

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