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N.J. plastic bag ban poses greater challenges for low-income, disabled, advocates say

Richelle Lee has been peppered with questions about New Jersey’s upcoming single-use plastic bag banwhich starts May 4.

A recent one caused the New Jersey NAACP spokeswoman to pause.

“I literally had a church I’m familiar with ask, will (enforcers of the bag ban) be sitting in church on Sunday? Waiting for us to set up to give out meals to people,” Lee said. “They’re thinking of that.”

Church leaders wanted to know if they may be prone to late May 8, Mother’s Day, the first Sunday service after the ban starts, Lee said.

The answer is no.

Food pantries at churches and non-profits will get a six-month reprieve from the bag ban to help make the transition. And any penalties of the Styrofoam ban will come with a warning to start, although state enforcers understand people will still be making the shift, officials said.

But that’s not the point, Lee said.

“How awful is that? It tells me people are concerned,” she said.

Venus D. Majeski, the director of development and community relations for non-profit New Jersey Institute for Disabilities, you have been approached with questions too. How much do reusable bags cost? Will I be able to afford them? Could they raise the prices on those bags? Where can I get free resources?

With just days to go until New Jersey’s strict ban on single-use plastic, paper and Styrofoam takes effect, the questions have only piled up for low-income and disabled residents, advocates told NJ Advance Media. Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law on Nov. 4, 2020, creating an 18-month runway to help people prepare for the ban and provide free resources. But while many are supportive of environmentally friendly steps, some organizations said many of the finer details of the new restrictions have not been communicated effectively to all communities. Resources, they added, are also still sorely needed.

The law that created the bag ban includes a $1.5 million grant, given in parts over three years, for the non-profit organization NJ Clean Communities Council to provide educational services and free reusable bags to communities. Since last May, organization officials said, outreach has been done in the form of events, giveaways, billboards, signage at Motor Vehicle Commission offices, a free online toolkit, social media posts and partnerships with media organizations, business groups and radio stations.

But word hasn’t reached everyone, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.

About 58% of poll respondents said plastic bags should either be banned, or available only for a small fee. But only 28% of residents know about the inclusion of paper bags, the poll found.

Paper bags will still be allowed at non-grocery stores like boutiques and bodegas. Any store that’s 2,500 square feet or larger (the average is about 38,000 square feet) will be prohibited from selling or giving out single-use plastic bags. That includes big box stores with grocery sections like Target and Walmart. Styrofoam will be banned at all business types.

“We’re certainly focusing our bag giveaway program in overburdened communities,” JoAnn Gemenden, New Jersey Clean Communities Council executive director, told NJ Advance Media. “We have been working with food pantries and food banks. The city of Newark … will be doing additional outreach in both English and Spanish at their bus stops.”

“(Newark) is definitely an area that we’re most concerned about,” she added, noting that the organization plans more outreach for the state’s largest city.

NJ Transit ads about the bag ban will be focused in urban areas like Camden, Trenton, Paterson, Newark, Elizabeth, and Atlantic City, Gemenden said.

“The smaller stores, including the bodegas, may not have an organization that’s representing them, where they’re getting all the messaging that they need to get and that’s my biggest concern. We certainly (don’t) want to create a bigger expense on behalf of those stores,” Gemenden said.

That’s why it will be important to work with county officials to ensure customers and owners are aware, she said.

Businesses or people found in violation of the new law will get a written warning for the first offense, a $1,000 per-day fine for the second offense, and a $5,000 per-day fine for the third offense, the NJDEP says.

But some experts said the shift should be done gradually, as people will likely be caught off guard.

“We need to be patient and help people adapt and find solutions and not judge and give people ends immediately,” Matthew Schuler, an assistant biology professor at Montclair State University, said.

“I think that before (the state) implements ends, they should study how the bag ban is affecting people in different areas. What communities are making the changes to the loss of plastic bags and other products faster and which ones are facing challenges? They should think of how we can overcome and face those challenges together … because that will help us with future plastic bans.”

Majeski, of the New Jersey Institute for Disabilities, thinks about mobility when she considers the bag ban’s impact on the everyday lives of disabled residents.

“If you’re traveling in a mobility device like a wheelchair, it may not be so easy to tuck those reusable bags into your backpack,” said Majeski, whose organization has added information about the bag ban to the emails it sends out to residents . “Most people also don’t know the ban also applies to paper bags and the May 4 deadline is quickly approaching.”

For Majeski, outreach for disabled residents she’s seen has come few and far between, she said.

Joann Williamson, a nurse in the Union, learned of the state’s bag ban by reading news reports.

“The new bags we have to use have to be strong enough, so they don’t give way. I don’t know if they are,” said Williamson, 60, who deals with spinal issues. “But I think it’ll be an issue. Most people have some disability after they get to a certain age and I don’t think they’ve thought this through.”

Williamson, who “has no choice but to purchase reusable bags now,” said she is concerned about the additional expense and the “hygiene” of the bag alternatives and if they’ll be able to support her purchases comfortably.

Reusable bags for sale at stores currently vary from 35 cents to $6.99 and $7.99 for a higher-end tote bag, NJ Advance Media founded. Several — from Acme, ShopRite and Trader Joe’s — range from $1.29 to $1.99. While that may not sound like a lot, to some families “every dollar counts,” Lee said.

Another concern for Majeski is disabled residents, who rely on grocery delivery, ending up with a glut of reusable bags they’ll have to purchase every time.

“I think that’s the greatest concern,” said Majeski.

An important consideration, Majeski added, is the various disabilities that may be involved — including residents with dyslexia, as well as those who are deaf or require a mobility device.

Larry Hajna, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection spokesman, said the agency is working to reach all residents regardless of circumstance.

“The NJDEP has been working in collaboration with NJ Clean Communities (NJCC) and NJ Business Action Center (NJBAC) to produce multilingual and multimedia materials to reach as many people as possible,” Hajna said in a statement. “In addition, NJCC and NJBAC have met with several chambers of commerce representing minority communities in the state over the past year.”

NJ county prepares for bag bans.

Camden County Commissioner and Liaison to the Sustainability Center, Jonathan Young Sr., holds a plastic bag replacement at the new Sustainability building in Blackwood, NJ on Tuesday, April 26, 2022.Dave Hernandez | For NJ Advance

The challenges of the ban on low-income families will likely be practiced too, said William Pennock, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at NJIT’s Newark College of Engineering.

Pennock said families without washing machines at home to clean their bags or who rely on public transportation to do grocery shopping will have additional hurdles to face.

Louise Wootton, professor of biology and chair of the sustainability committee at Georgian Court University, said providing resources for people and businesses is only half the battle.

“We need to find those leaders in different communities. I think people tend to hear messages best from peers,” Wootton said. “If you find another person who shares your culture or your upbringing, they’re going to have the ability to find those notes of common ground. That will allow the conversation to start fruitfully. I don’t think anybody wants to feel preached at.”

Anecdotally, the NAACP’s New Jersey chapter has heard from many people who are not aware of the nuances of the upcoming law. Education instead of penalties will be key in the next few months, officials there said.

“I want to make it clear, we are in support of the ban,” said Marcus Sibley, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference Environmental and Climate Justice chair. “But we also feel the rollout matters. Sometimes, the rollout shows the imbalance and the inequity in your system. Because the rollout doesn’t always get to the people who need to hear it.”

Throughout the month of April, the NJ NAACP has posted 17 principles of environmental justice on Instagram as part of a social media campaign. Sibley said the organization plans to continue helping residents navigate the new bag ban and “have conversations with those in power” about where more resources are needed.

For more information on the ban visit nj.com/plasticbagban. Still have questions about New Jersey’s plastic bag ban? Ask them here.

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Steven Rhodes may be reached at srodas@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @stevenrodasnj.

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