She's the bag monster from New Jersey and she wants you to quit plastic. So do I | Kevin Riordan

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Karen Cohen, an environmental activist from Mount Laurel, utilizes a ‘bag monster’ costume representing the hundreds of bags a typical American adult acquires and disposes of annually. She recently wore the costume to a Mount Laurel Green Team event at the township library.

Karen Cohen hates plastic bags.

But she loves to dress up like a plastic-bag monster.

“The costume gets a lot of attention,” said the longtime environmentalist, who recently wore a borrowed bag-monster getup with a matching headpiece to Cherry Hill’s Earth Festival.

Imagine someone walking around in a voluminous sci-fi bridal gown or an antebellum hoop skirt concocted by a RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant.

And all for a good cause!

“Some kids are afraid when they see you in it,” said Cohen, 55, of Mount Laurel. “And you get a lot of stares. But so many people want to take a picture or a selfie. It helps spread the word.”

The costumes are made commercially or by hand — “Make Your Own Bag Monster” videos are on YouTube — and are comprised of 500 or more single-use plastic bags, the number a typical American consumer acquires annually.

Bag monsters, like team mascots or cartoon superheroes, are colorful and entertaining.

They also also effectively dramatize the contribution ordinary people make to the problem. Or could make to a solution.

After all, my encounter with a costumed Cohen at the festival spurred me to think, and write, about this issue.

Whatever the inspiration, a handful of Jersey towns, most along the Shore, have moved to discourage retail distribution of the bags.

I do have qualms about the nanny-state aspect of having government impose fees on the bags, or ban them altogether.

But single-use bags are bad: They’re flimsy, but take a remarkably persistent  toll on our environment.

They add to the litter that mars so much of our landscape. They can be eaten by or entangle birds and other wildlife, sometimes with fatal results.

Bags like those I heedlessly take home from convenience stores, chain drugstores and supermarkets several times a week are not readily biodegradable and will endure for decades, if not longer.

As Mount Laurel Green Team member Sandra Carleton observed, these plastic bags “never go away.”

But they certainly do blow in the wind and float in the water, as was abundantly made clear when I volunteered at a Petty’s Island cleanup in April.

Even on the uninhabited island, plastic foam, bottles and bags were all over the place. Nothing like picking up litter with a trash-grabber for a couple of hours to make a columnist vow never to drink coffee from a plastic foam cup again.

“I hate plastic bags. I hate them,” said Beth Bresnahan, a yoga teacher who lives in Cinnaminson.

She became involved in environmental causes 15 years ago after she moved to the township and organized an effort to clean up Pompeston Creek. As a township newcomer, she was shocked by the amount of water bottles and trash in the creek.

Similarly, social media posts about plastic litter may be contributing to awareness or even activism, said Bresnahan.

“It’s the visuals,” she said. “People are seeing the visuals.”

On Wednesday, Cohen donned the costume and appeared at a screening of Bag It at the Mount Laurel library. The powerful 2011 documentary includes grisly footage of animal suffering — edited out in some versions for young audiences — and also features the bag monster costume.

“It behooves people to watch the film and see the impact these bags have on the environment,” said Martin Levin, a semi-retired computer consultant from Mount Laurel.

“People are waking up to the fact that it’s up to us. We can’t depend on the government to protect us from the environment right now,” Levin said. “They have another agenda. They’re more concerned about benefiting corporations.”

So public education is essential.  And bag monsters and documentaries can be part of that.

“We can’t let ignorance and stupidity rule the world,” Bresnahan said. “People need to realize that when they put dog poop in a plastic bag and throw it into a storm drain on the street, it doesn’t go into a sewer [system]. It goes into the creek little kids want to fish in.”

Individual actions can make a difference, said Cohen, whose husband, Ed, is leader of the Sustainability Alliance of Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties.

“To me, it’s an easy fix. Bring your own bags. Bring your own containers. Make it a habit,” she said.

“I’ve trained myself, basically,” said Carleton. “I carry reusable bags. I force myself to go back to the car to get them. Or I carry things out of the store without the bag.”

I must admit that meeting Cohen in the billowing extrava-bagza of the costume inspired me to (at least try to) do something about my own rather profligate use of these single-use conveniences.

Which I rationalize by re-using as many as I can at least once.

But once is far from enough.

As someone with more than a little experience in how tough it can be to replace bad with good habits,  I’m setting a realistic goal.

No more single-use plastic.

One bag at a time.