When Philadelphia’s ban on plastic bags begins Thursday, shoppers can expect to see changes at some stores in the city — but not all.
Rite Aid customers will have to start paying 5 cents for paper bags. Acme shoppers can still get plastic for several more months. And many retailers are still figuring out how to handle the change.
The new law bans all single-use plastic bags, as well as paper bags that are made of less than 40% recycled materials. While the ban takes effect this week after a pandemic delay, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration is phasing it in gradually. Starting Oct. 1, the city will begin issuing warnings to businesses violating the ban. Full enforcement — which means no single-use plastic bags allowed — begins April 1.
Even as the new law takes effect, some business owners and environmentalists are hoping it can be amended to include a mandatory fee for other types of bags. That would offset the increased cost to retailers for providing an alternative to plastic, they say — and better incentivize shoppers to bring their own bags.
The implementation comes as Philadelphia and other municipalities are suing the state over a law that prohibits the enactment or enforcement of local plastic bag regulations, though state lawmakers didn’t extend that prohibition in the latest budget package.
City Councilmember Mark Squilla, who sponsored the legislation for Philadelphia’s ban, said its taking effect is “an exciting mark for the city.” He’s open to changing the law in the future to include a fee for paper bags — a provision he removed from his original bill to win the support of Council and the Kenney administration.
“We’ll see how it all plays out and we’ll work with all our advocates and the administration to see the best way to move forward during this process,” he said.
With no mandatory fee for paper bags, businesses are deciding whether or not to offer the bags at no additional cost. And citing a nationwide shortage of paper bags, some retailers are delaying their transition until closer to when enforcement actually begins.
Jabari Jones, president of the West Philadelphia Corridor Collective, said many small business owners he’s spoken with are worried about having to comply with the ban as they recover from the pandemic.
“Most businesses want to meet the deadline, but I also know that there’s a lot of folks that it kind of took them by surprise,” he said.
Jones said some business owners don’t trust the city to delay enforcement, so are scrambling to meet the July 1 deadline. And for retailers close to the city’s border, he said, charging a fee for paper or reusable bags doesn’t seem like a viable option because shoppers could go outside the city instead.
Larger retailers are taking a variety of different approaches, and some haven’t yet made decisions.
“Like most retailers, Acme continues to experience a shortage of paper bags,” company spokesperson Dana Ward said. “It is too soon to know whether paper bags will continue to be available in our stores free of charge after the plastic bag supply has been depleted.”
Jeff Brown, who owns several ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores, is also still deciding how he will handle the bag ban. Brown, who previously fought plastic bag regulations, stayed out of the debate over the legislation that takes effect this week.
Rite Aid plans to phase out plastic by July 1 and start charging 5 cents for paper bags, company spokesperson Christopher Savarese said. And CVS stores will transition to offering free paper bags by Oct. 1, spokesperson Matt Blanchette said.
Logan Welde, an attorney for the Clean Air Council, said he hopes the law can still be amended to include a mandatory fee for paper bags. Without it, he said, “this is an ineffective piece of legislation that will probably fail.”
Welde said retailers are in a tough position because customers won’t like paying for bags when retailers aren’t mandated to charge them, even though paper bags cost more than plastic. Paper bags also have an environmental impact, Welde said, so simply replacing plastic with them isn’t the answer. Instead, he said shoppers would have additional motivation to bring their own reusable bags if they face a fee for paper.
“Getting rid of single-use plastic bags and paper bags, we will look back on this and this will be the easiest thing that we could have done to save our whole entire planet,” Welde said. “In the future we’re going to be having to make many, many more difficult decisions than this.”
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For now, shoppers can expect to slowly see changes at checkout counters across the city — or at least signs informing them of the new law, which retailers are required to hang by Aug. 1.
The city is technically still prohibited by state law from enacting or enforcing plastic bag regulations. While lawmakers in Harrisburg didn’t include an extension of that preemption in the new budget they approved last week, the current prohibition will remain in effect until December. Last year’s state budget banned bag regulations until July 1 or six months after Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency order was lifted, whichever came later. Lawmakers voted June 10 to end Wolf’s order.
Philadelphia officials, when announcing a lawsuit against the state in March over the preemption law, said the city would still proceed with enacting its ban, with an education period before enforcement begins.
Squilla said he hopes that more municipalities across Pennsylvania will consider plastic bag bans, now that the state preemption will end.
“I think you’ll see them start to pop up,” he said, “which is a good thing and it’s better for the environment.”