N.J. environmentalists credit plastic bag ban with reducing litter along the shore

Plastics still top the list of litter collected along the shoreline. But the number of plastic bags and straws has dropped in the wake of the state’s bag ban.

Monmouth Beach

Beachgoers spend time at Monmouth Beach, N.J., Sunday, July 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Eric Carvin)

From car batteries to roofing tiles, baseballs, nail polish, and a popcorn popper.

These are just a few of the items collected by more than 8,000 volunteers during the biannual Beach Sweep events along the Jersey Shore in 2022.

Despite the list of oddities, the vast majority of the 376,969 items littering the beaches from Perth Amboy to Cape May were plastics, according to the 2022 Beach Sweeps report released by Clean Ocean Action this week.

While plastics comprised 82% of the litter collected, the report says the number of plastic straws and bags actually decreased this year. Clean Ocean Action Executive Director Cindy Zipf said the drop resulted from a new law that bans plastic bags as well as foam takeout containers.

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“It’s really, really encouraging to see those numbers trending down for the bags, straws, and foam containers,” said Zipf.

The number of plastic bags collected dropped by 37% compared to 2021, while plastic straws decreased 39% and foam takeout containers by 38%.

The organization has been collecting data since 1985, and Zipf says the information was pivotal in creating the new law.

The Single Use Waste Reduction Act (SUWRA), which banned plastic bags and foam food containers, went into full effect in May 2022. A law that requires plastic straws to be given to customers only upon request went into effect at the end of 2021.

Plastics and other trash are windblown or carried by storms into the state’s waterways, which ultimately flow into the sea. There the plastic often breaks down into tiny pieces and is ingested by fish. Marine wildlife can also become entangled in the debris.

Zipf says that although this drop in plastics helps, there’s more work to do because the demand for plastic is still high. And since plastics are made from fossil fuels, their manufacture contributes to climate warming greenhouse gasses. That has led to ocean warming and acidification, as well as melting ice sheets that cause sea level rise. All of this together threatens the health of the ocean, marine life, as well as the economies of shoreline communities.

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“The use of plastic has been skyrocketing,” said Zipf. “[That demand] is encouraging the use of fossil fuels that results in additional climate change.”

Zipf said the best way to reduce climate change is to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which in turn could reduce the number of plastics. “It’s all about reduction,” Zipf said. “That’s the fastest, safest, easiest way to reduce climate change.”

Zipf said the organization wants to see the state ban the release of balloons and better inform the public about their hazards to the environment and wildlife.

Clean Ocean Action is looking for more volunteers to scour the shoreline for litter during the next Beach Sweep event on April 1.

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