December 10, 2022

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Grocery shopping from home is supposed to be easy. But not with N.J.’s plastic bag ban. | Opinion

I’m a mom of two boys and always looking for ways to make my life easier. Bringing them to the grocery store is NOT one of them.

Pandemic or not, curbside pickup has been incredibly convenient — until now.

Wednesday was the first day of New Jersey’s plastic bag ban and I put shop-from-home to the test at the two stores I frequent the most and, unfortunately, the ones that seemed would be the most problematic because they were going completely bagless: Walmart and Target.

Both stores have grocery sections larger than 2,500 square feet, so they are banned from giving out plastic or paper bags when customers checkout. Most other grocery stores we talked to said they’re charging for reusable bags with every order — either worked into the cost, a flat fee tacked on, or a price per bag.

Even that’s not ideal because the cost will surely add up — 10 bags a week, at a lower end fee of $1 a bag could mean $500+ a year. And with no way to exchange the bags it will end up being nearly as wasteful as single-use plastics.

But Walmart and Target’s plans are, at minimum, inconvenient if you have a big order, and at worst, not practical for anyone who has mobility issues.

Neither solution seems great and maybe grocery stores and retailers can learn from each other to come up with something better.

On the eve of the bag ban, Walmart officials told us that customers doing grocery pickup “will see app reminders to bring their reusable bags and containers to their pickup appointment for easy transfer of their items into their vehicle. Customers can also add reusable bags to their grocery purchase.”

Neither of these was true. Sure, there’s a message at the top of the app saying “Per state law, from 5/4 NJ goes bagless” with an option to “shop containers.” But those options aren’t reusable bags. Instead, I was prompted to add 18-gallon totes or a 24-inch wreath storage box set to my order. Yeah, that’s not going to work.

walmart plastic bag

Walmart said it would offer customers a chance to add reusable bags to their purchase. But this is the only offer I saw.

No other communication from Walmart — not the app notification, the text message alert, or email informing me of my Greek yogurt substitute offered any reminders to bring my own bags.

But I was prepared. I’ve accumulated (and bought) dozens of reusable bags over the years and keep bags of bags hanging from a hook in my basement hallway. Unsure of what to expect, I tossed those and a laundry basket in my hatchback.

After checking in to my curbside pickup spot, I got excited to see some Walmart employees pulling out flatbed carts of groceries to other cars, already packed in blue reusable bags. Maybe they were giving them away for the first day to give customers a bit of a grace period?

Nope. Turns out, those were for the Spark drivers — kind of like Instacart — who were doing deliveries for Walmart. Until May 31, Walmart said it is giving complimentary bags on delivery orders only. After that, they’re going to ask customers to leave their reusable bags or containers outside to be filled up at drop-off — which just sounds like way more work for the drivers.

My cart eventually came out, with its blue baskets piled high and my groceries stacked inside — bagless.

“So, how does this work?” I asked the employee, expecting my cans of black beans to be chucked in the back of the trunk.

“I’m not allowed to put them in your car, so you have to bag them,” she said.

Great. At least the rain stopped.

After I untangled my bag of bags, selected the right ones for the job (something machine-washable for the chicken, the freezer bag for nuggets and tots, a sturdier bag for the heavier bottles of ketchup and ranch), I managed to get it all loaded into just 7 bags in probably under 5 minutes.

walmart plasic bag ban

I was able to fit all my groceries in just 7 reusable bags. Next time, I’ll be more prepared by having the sturdy bags already open in the trunk.

A $200 order like that would have normally left me with two or three dozen cheap, ripped plastic bags with like one can in each. Better for the environment? Yes. Although somehow, I still ended up with 8 single-use plastic bags because the meat — even the pre-packed turkey breast — was all double-bagged in produce bags (which are still allowed.)

When I was done, I had to awkwardly shove the cart off to the side, despite the employee’s promise that she’d be there to grab it when I was done loading.

Target seemed as if it could be a similarly annoying experience, except rather than groceries, I did a drive-up order for some summer clothes for my kids. The employee wheeled out his red cart with 5 pairs of shorts folded into a small cardboard container. A few Target bulls eye reusable bags were hanging off the side — presumably for sale on the spot, if needed.

“Did you bring your bags?” he asked.

“I sure did! So what do you need me to do?”

He explained he technically had to place the items in the car for me — so I handed over a bag (note to self: keep the gross chicken bags separate from the retail bags in the future), he put the clothes in and handed it back through the window.

What if I didn’t have bags? He said he’d just put them in the car loose.

It wasn’t awful, it could have been worse, but it also could have been a lot better. New Jersey’s ban on single-use plastic was signed into law 18 months ago — plenty of time for legislators and store owners to come up with a better solution than this.

If this is the new normal, it may not be convenient but it’s something we’ll all have to get used to.

Read more about the new law and get all your questions answered on nj.com/plasticbagban.

walmart plastic bag ban

All of my meat was double-bagged in thing, single-use produce bags which are not part of the plastic bag ban, but still seemed wasteful.

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