On May 4, the rest of New Jersey gets to do what my Hudson County neighbors and I have been doing since 2019 – going cold turkey on our single-use, plastic grocery bag addiction.
Both Jersey City and Hoboken instituted municipal plastic bag bans in 2019, and Hoboken strengthened its policy in 2020. Since I live in one of those cities and shop in both, I’ve been living with a bag ban for three years now.
With a big plastic department store bag at home, overflowing with other plastic bags, I welcomed it. Even reusing the plastic grocery bags for trash disposal still left me with a hefty (get it?) Surplus. There are new routines to get into, but you can benefit from my bag ban “beta-testing.”
Buy plenty of reusable bags
I’m single and I have a dozen plastic and cloth reusable grocery bags and one insulated bag in my collection. It allows me enough bags to rotate them between the car and home without getting caught in a bag shortage. This should give you an idea of what you need or want.
Try different types of reusable bags
Different bags have a variety of carrying capability. The most common, big heavy plastic shopping bag styles are the cargo haulers, able to swallow bulky and heavy items and carry a lot. Cloth bags seem to work best as backups.
My two prized bags are older Whole Foods cloth bags that are a pain to pack, but the shape prevents small cans (such as the many cans of cat food I buy) from getting loose in the car. You can also buy tiny cloth fold-up bags and net bags that fit in your pocket, work bag or pocketbook for that sudden unanticipated store stop on the way home.
Not all bags are equal. I’ve had hybrid bags made from cloth and plastic fibers that tore or disintegrated, and I avoid buying them.
Supermarkets offer various types of bags that are reasonably priced, which is where I bought mine. I’d recommend testing different type of bags out early, before May 4.
ABC (Always Be Carrying)
This new, sometimes annoying habit you’ll have to get into is returning the bags to your vehicle after bringing a load of groceries home. It’s a delicate balance of shopping terror. I try to have enough bags in the car for two grocery runs, plus a couple of backup bags.
Sturdy, heavy, plastic department-store shopping bags also are good choices to keep in the car as back-ups to your back-up bags.
I try to put the reusables from the last grocery trip into one bag and leave them at the front door as a reminder to put them in the car. Since there is a supermarket within walking distance, I try to balance my stock between the bags I leave at home for walking / biking trips and the ones I keep in my car.
Always bring more
I can not stress this enough. If you think four bags will be enough, bring five. I call it the just-in-case bag. A couple of unanticipated 2-for-1 sales can fill the bags quickly. There have been a few terrifying trips when I left that spare bag in the car and regretted it.
Cloth bags are the best for this, since they are compact in the bigger bag if unneeded, and you can use the last of your old pre-ban plastic grocery bags as an emergency overflow bag. (Yes, just because plastic bags will be banned at the register, does not mean you can not bring and use the ones you have).
Prep your bag for the heavies
The better reusable plastic bags come with a piece of thicker plastic on the bottom to help provide support for heavy items. Without one, the bag bottom sags in the middle and scrapes the sidewalk.
If your bag did not come with one, or the plastic piece is too thin to support the load, cut a piece of cardboard from all those Amazon delivery boxes to fit the bottom of your bag. The extra support is especially important if you walk to and from the supermarket and helps when walking from the store to the car.
Get insulated for summer
Similar to a trip to the beach, you’ll need an insulated bag when the weather gets hot for your cold and frozen groceries.
I say this with a caveat: If you have a short ride between the store and home, you can live without one, except for melty groceries such as ice cream. If you’re stopping to shop in the middle of your commute and still face a 30-minute drive, you might want to consider buying an insulated bag and an ice pack. I use an ice pack only on the hottest of days.
I have a cheat code when I forget the insulated bag, which has been successful, as in no food poisoning. Load all your cold and frozen groceries in the same bag (or bags) for the trip home. Divide the load so you have some frozen items and cold in the same bag. You’re using the frozen items as an ice pack to keep the cold stuff from getting warm.
Bag up smartly
I had to learn to pack these bags so all the heavy stuff isn’t in one bag for the sake of my arms and the bag. A half dozen big cans of tomato sauce may fit into a big heavy plastic shopping bag, but that does not mean you should do it.
Luckily, I have not tested the weight capacity of the big plastic reusables. And I do not want to learn the hard way by having one break. So I divide my heavy items between bags and fill it in with lighter items.
You also need to insulate breakables in glass containers or produce in light, but very crushable plastic containers and carefully pack items sensitive to cold or bruising (I’m looking at you, bananas).
Your laundry has a new friend. Cloth bags need to be periodically washed, especially after hauling leaky groceries, such as poultry. I throw them in with other laundry and let them air dry. Cleaning them also extends their life.
Plastic bags can be cleaned as needed with a wet wipe. Your other new chore? Toss the receipts that cluster in the bottom of the bag.
What I hate about the ban
OK, this is my place to vent. I’m totally on board with using reusable bags, and carrying them quickly becomes a habit.
One annoying aspect is the loss of those single-use bags as small trash bags or dog doo bags. For years, I’ve had to sneak into the suburbs to buy groceries just so I can get a load of free plastic grocery bags. They’ve been my secret stash that lines my kitchen trash can.
Now, when the statewide ban hits, I and people like me, will likely have to buy small trash bags – which will get one use before they go to the landfill, unlike my plastic grocery bags that got a double shot at being useful
What will be my workaround? That’s to be determined.
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Larry Higgs may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.