Letters: Princeton Must Work to Reduce Use of Plastic Bags

To the Editor:

Princeton has begun to recycle plastic bags and other used plastics. Bravo!  McCaffrey’s has collected more than 800,000 bags, or about 200 pounds of plastic bags, since Aug. 1. I applaud the coalition of McCaffrey’s with Sustainable Princeton and the Princeton Merchants Association that has made this success possible.

But the only fully responsible aim must be a substantial pre-consumer reduction of single-use plastic bags. Post-consumer recycling cannot curb the toxic manufacture of plastics. Carbons and methane released into the atmosphere contribute to dangerous climate change. Recycled bags simply become plastic wood, temporarily saved from landfills. Merchants must also strive to reduce pre-consumer use of single-use paper bags (think of deforestation, flooding).

The coalition’s voluntary program(“Ask First,” “Bring Your Own Bag” should immediately promote an agreement among all Princeton merchants to reduce the number of single-use bags, both plastic and paper, that are distributed to customers—i.e., reduce consumption. The coalition should devise a method of measuring the reductions achieved. The method should immediately be publicized and a schedule for making periodic announcements of progress should be announced.

I propose that the coalition announce its numbers every six months, at a minimum, in April and October of 2016. A program without measurements is effectually non-existent; accountability to the Princeton is mandatory. Without measurement and accountability, no program can be responsibly evaluated. Obviously, Princetonians need to know the merchants’ baseline for measurements.

Many people know that voluntary programs to reduce consumption of single-use bags have failed. Increasing bag-recycling is relatively easy. Municipalities, states, countries around the world have passed laws or ordinances to achieve reduction — most recently Britain, following Ireland and Wales, and in New Jersey, Longport—the first, but not the last in our state. By the way, did you know it takes twice as long to drive from downtown Princeton to Wegman’s, Whole Foods, or ShopRite than it does to McCaffrey’s?

The Longport ordinance, which imposes a ten-cent fee per bag tocustomers who forget to bring their own, is similar to the one drafted by Princeton citizens four years ago—but still not put on the Princeton Council agenda. In February, 2015, Mayor Lempert authorized the expenditure of taxpayer funds for Princeton’s legal counsel to vet the draft ordinance; the resulting memorandum indicates that the ordinance, possibly modified, would be legal in New Jersey. Longport has now set the precedent.

I propose that, in fairness, we all assist the coalition’s voluntary program in proving its adequacy for a year from inception. If pre-consumer plastic reduction of at least 50% is not achieved by next October, the mayor should put the draft ordinance on the Princeton Council agenda, public input should be solicited, and a working group to achieve a satisfactory draft ordinance should be established. As the November 2016 elections approach, all candidates should make public their views on the ordinance.

No man is an island. Princeton, like every community, is responsible to the world.

Daniel A. Harris














  1. At least one Princeton Council member reports being asked about his own bags when he visits McCaffreys, but to date no one else I know has been asked. I am there frequently and the only question I get is “Paper or plastic?” As the letter writer suggests, let’s establish criteria and a deadline by which we may assess the success of the recycling initiative. After that, it will be time to put the bag fee on the agenda. To offset the burden on lower-income people, organizations around town, including non-profits of various kinds, could make bags available to lots of people (not just low-income folks)–I understand the Princeton United Methodist Church is already doing this.

    1. I’m happy to contribute reusable bags to those in need & so are many of my friends…BUT a bag fee is just plain wrong.

  2. Dear Mr. Harris, We both agree that the elimination of plastic in the waste stream is critical for planetary health. Surely you use cloth shopping bags & I do too. Despite my devotion to clean sustainable living, It’s just plain wrong to have residents, shoppers, & tax payers pay for the creation & enforcement of any ordinance that gives bag fees to vendors/offenders who bring NON-biodegradable trash into town. EVERY merchant has a choice & the ability to act consciously, as your pre-consumer stance suggests. Shoppers don’t leave the Whole Earth Center, Whole Foods, & other thoughtful vendors with single use plastic bags because those merchants RESPONSIBLY provide safe options. The ONLY acceptable bag ordinance is one that charges vendors who bring non-biodegradable choices
    into town and/or bans such bags altogether. Irresponsible vendors should be charged to offset huge burden & cost increase they create in Princeton’s landfill trash removal bill. It’s only right to go to the root cause (merchant’s choice) & place all cost burdens on merchants who ignore the right thing to do. Giving dimes from Mom & Pop to merchants who do wrong makes absolutely no sense, especially since there are already towns that have banned plastic bags altogether. I question the competence of any Council member who
    agreed to pay legal fees to legitimize the ordinance you & your colleagues created (no offense intended, given the splendor of your good citizenship). Wise citizens on Princeton’s Boards protested right off the bat & were ignored. If a backward ordinance that robs Mom & Pop & places more bins around town goes through, we’ll have MORE proof of the tail wagging the dog in Princeton. The day before Thanksgiving I left McCaffreys with my cloth bags amidst an actual sea of white plastic bag filled carts. One my kids surprised me by remarking that every item we bought in McCaffreys “cost dollars more” than other markets. Do you really want to give even more to latitude to Mr. McCaffrey’s & other ignorant vendors? Why should my family pay municipal employees to monitor such bad behavior, when we want it stopped altogether? Do you really call fining Mom & Pop for something someone else brings to town good government? Or are you joking?

  3. Please!
    We don’t need [local] government to tell us what to do, and then impose some stupid fees to enforce ordinances.
    What would be next?
    Perhaps reusable dog scoop bags?

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