Immediate public health concerns are taking priority over longer term environmental goals in the Garden State, as a number of local bans on single-use plastic bags have been rolled back for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to NJ Food Council President & CEO Linda Doherty, retailer concerns about bags are two-fold, with the first being the potential for additional exposure to novel coronavirus as it lingers on surfaces for a varied amount of time.

In one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that involved Princeton University scientists, the virus was found to exist on plastic surfaces for up to 72 hours.

The second issue, Doherty said, is that the paper bag supply has become difficult for stores to replenish, as manufacturers have said they "cannot keep up with the demand at this time."

During the public health crisis, the use of single-use plastic or paper bags will lessen the possibility of cross-contamination, Doherty said.

That also was the message in a letter sent by the NJ Food Council two weeks ago to about 32 municipalities that had enacted ordinances restricting the use of single-use plastic bags.

In the letter, the council asked that communities "suspend or freeze local ordinances for the duration of this health emergency and for 30 days after to enable our retailers to restock appropriately."

Stafford and Atlantic Highlands both responded by suspending their ordinances during the state of emergency, Doherty said.

Parsippany-Troy Hills also suspended enforcement of its municipal retail plastic bag ban (which went into effect in February) on March 17 due to the ongoing health crisis.

“While environmental protection and reducing the usage of plastics remain priorities of the administration, enforcement is not viable at this time due to constraints on manpower and resources, as well as the protection of our code enforcement officials,” Parsippany-Troy Hills spokesman Peter Koerella said.

Summit's single-use plastic bag ban would unlikely take full effect as previously planned in May, according to city officials on March 30.

In Cranford, a plastic bag ban had been set to go into full effect until June 30. The Township Committee was considering an extension of that deadline, according to Cranford Mayor Patrick Giblin.

A number of stores, including ShopRite locations in New Jersey, have announced customers with reusable bags should bag their own groceries.

"Target stores will stop handling guest-supplied reusable bags out of an abundance of caution. Our team members are bagging items in a Target-supplied paper or plastic bag, and we’re waiving any local bag fees" according to a March 26 update from the corporate website. "If a guest brings in a reusable bag, they can choose to bag their items themselves."

In New Hampshire, the governor issued an emergency order "requiring all grocers and retail stores to temporarily transition to use of single use paper or plastic bags," effective March 21 until further notice.

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