What to do with those ever-present plastic bags shoppers tote home from supermarkets and grocery stores? More than 102 billion of them every year are taking up permanent residence in our nation’s landfills.
Oh, they seem innocuous enough – one bag from the convenience store with the day’s milk, another from the corner market with cereal and dog food – but once they reach critical mass, the indestructible sacks pollute our streams, clog our storm drains and contaminate our soil.
Communities have tried varied approaches, including small fees, taxes or total bans. In Ireland, a country-wide tax on plastic bags resulted in a 90 percent drop in usage: 1 billion fewer bags despoiling the environment every year.
Mercer County voters told officials in November that they wanted no part of a 5-cent fee for disposable plastic shopping bags.
Now the Princeton Merchants Association has a promising notion: offering recycling bins in stores, starting with McCaffrey’s and the Princeton University Store, and turning the collected bags over to Trex Recycling to find new life as weatherproof decking and other products.
The merchants are teaming up with local businesses, nonprofits and the township itself to help get the project off the ground. The Whole Earth Center, Craft Cleaners, Sustainable Princeton and the Princeton Senior Resource Center are on board.
Princeton residents already have shown their awareness of the issue; while the fee-for-bags referendum went down to defeat last year, township residents indicated they were in favor of the charge.
After conducting research, the municipality’s attorney, Trishka Cecil, told officials that Princeton can legally place a 10-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags if the purpose is to cut down on litter in streets, sewers and storm drains.
While that initiative makes its way through the proper channels, the merchants have taken a healthy first step with their recycling plans, which call for 10 additional containers to be placed at key locations.
They’re also encouraging businesses to ask customers if they need a bag, before automatically providing one, and urging residents to bring their own bags whenever possible.
The efforts aren’t limited to those ubiquitous bags you get at every check-out counter. Shoppers also will be invited to use the recycling bins for newspaper bags, bread bags, food storage bags and other plastics such as dry-cleaning bags.
It’s heartening that the merchants group has already enlisted broad support from many quarters, and that the municipality itself is also involved. The big question now is whether shoppers will step up. And if so, will other communities follow Princeton’s lead?