Asbury Park Press: MIDDLETOWN, NJ, By David P Willis – Grocery store customers are walking off with those plastic hand baskets you find in the supermarket, an apparent consequence of New Jersey’s plastic bag ban that went into effect this spring.

“They are just disappearing,” said Louis Scaduto Jr, chief executive officer of Middletown-based Food Circus Super Markets, which owns four Super Foodtown stores in Monmouth County. “I may actually have to just do away with them soon, can’t afford to keep replacing them,” Scaduto wrote in a text message.

It’s not just happening at Super Foodtown. Stop & Shop in Long Branch didn’t have any hand baskets during a recent visit. ShopRite in Freehold Township didn’t have any either.

“Like other retailers across the state, we have experienced theft of our handheld shopping baskets – an unintended consequence of the ban on plastic and paper bags,” Stop & Shop said in a statement.

In May, New Jersey implemented the strictest carryout bag ban in the nation, outlawing plastic bags of any thickness with the exception of plastic bags used for fresh vegetables, deli meats and baked goods. Paper bags at supermarkets, and other stores with large grocery departments, are not allowed either.

Customers were forced to bring their own bags to the store or buy a reusable one at the checkout line.

The New Jersey Food Council, the trade group representing the state’s grocers, said customers “for the most part” were prepared for the ban on single-use bags and complied with the state’s mandated ban.

Signs went up in stores reminding customers to bring their own bags or buy others. Other signs touched on another issue: the plastic hand baskets that customers can carry around the store to collect a few items for checkout.

“Hand baskets must remain inside the store at all times,” read one sign at Stop & Shop in Middletown. “Thank you.”

Some customers have listened. Others have not.

“We are aware of random reports that grocers are experiencing the loss of these hand baskets to varying degrees,” said Linda Doherty, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Food Council, in a statement. “We view this as a short unintended consequence of the new state law.”

Some grocers are ordering more while others are considering doing away with the baskets, Doherty said.

“Some stores are also posting signs to remind customers to keep handbaskets in the store and using in-store public address systems with similar messaging,” Doherty said. “We think in most cases people simply forgot to bring them back.”

This has happened in other states and municipalities with bag bans, she said. “It’s not a new trend,” she said.

ShopRite spokesperson Karen O’Shea said some stores have experienced the loss of handbaskets in the wake of the single-use bag ban. Some ShopRite stores have posted signs asking customers to keep baskets in the store.

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“We hope people who use our baskets will remember to leave them in store when they are done shopping so the baskets remain a resource for all our customers,” O’Shea said.