4.4 billion.

That's the number New Jersey shoppers should keep in mind, environment advocates say, when they're worried about whether they'll be able to comply on May 4 when retailers can no longer hand out or sell single-use plastic bags at checkout.

It's estimated that New Jerseyans use 4.4 billion plastic bags on an annual basis.

This article is part 3 in a week-long New Jersey 101.5 series about the upcoming New Jersey ban on plastic bags, paper bags, and Styrofoam products.

"We don't need a plastic bag for the toothpaste you buy at the pharmacy," said Doug O'Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. "Literally what we use for 15 minutes should not be a scourge on our environment or our communities for generations."

New Jersey's law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in November 2020 is considered to be among the strongest in the nation. O'Malley said the move, which his group and others have been working towards for years, is part of a global movement to reduce everyone's dependence on plastic.

"You will find plastic bags blowing down the street, you'll find them in trees, you'll find them in waterways," O'Malley said.

Over a 10-year span ending in 2019, volunteers for Long Branch-based Clean Ocean Action have collected nearly 92,000 plastic shopping bags off of New Jersey beaches. And in each of those years, plastic shopping bags were among the group's "dirty dozen" (the 12 items most commonly found during beach sweeps).

But eliminating a source of litter, or reducing an eyesore, isn't the only goal of New Jersey's law.

"Plastic bags, in particular when they're out in the marine environment, are especially harmful to certain types of marine life," said Alison Jones, watershed program manager for Clean Ocean Action. "It's posing a threat through ingestion, of course. They can also be a threat through entanglement."

Sea Turtle eat plastic bag ocean pollution concept
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Plastic bags do not break down organically. Instead, over time, they break down into much smaller fragments — aka microplastics, which have been on environmentalists' radar for several years.

"They've been found in finfish, they've been found in shellfish, they've been found in fresh water, they've been found in the oceans, and they've been found in animals as well as humans," said Sylvia Kay, zero waste coordinator for Sierra Club New Jersey.

A study published on March 24 recorded the first evidence of microplastics found in human blood.

"It's a general problem, not just a coastal problem," Kay said.

Kay referred to New Jersey's plastic bag ban as "low-hanging fruit."

"This is an easy step forward to start cutting down on our use of plastic," she said. "We need to learn to reduce and reuse."

You're preparing for the bag ban, and so are retailers. Day 4 of this series will focus on what you can expect to see at stores starting on or before May 4.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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