When Logan Welde started drafting legislation to regulate plastic bags in Philadelphia in 2013, there were hardly more than a dozen places in the country with such bag laws.

Now, as City Council considers a ban on plastic bags and a fee for paper or other kinds of bags, there are least 471 local bag regulations in 28 different states and Washington, D.C., according to an advocate who tracks the legislation.

“At least once a week over the last four years, there’s been a new municipality that has passed legislation on this,” said Welde, a staff attorney with the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia. “There are so many examples now.”

The rapid spread of plastic bag regulations could make it easier for Philadelphia to enact its own legislation after years of failed attempts. Philadelphia grocery store owner Jeff Brown, for example, opposed previous efforts at regulating plastic bags, but now cites the “movement sweeping the country” as a reason for dropping his lobbying efforts this time.

Other cities’ work also gave Councilman Mark Squilla, who introduced the bill in June, plenty of examples to consider.

“We looked at all of them," Squilla said. “Everybody has a little bit of a different spin.”

Large cities with bag regulations also include Boston, Chicago, and Seattle. Many smaller municipalities have them, too — Narberth’s 10-cent fee for plastic and other types of bags went into effect in April, making it the first municipality in Pennsylvania to regulate bag use.

“My big takeaway is there’s a lot of different policies that can have a big effect,” said Tatiana Homonoff, an assistant professor of economics and public policy at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.

State legislatures have passed bag policies in California, New York, Oregon, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, and Delaware.

Fourteen states, including Pennsylvania, have so-called preemption laws on the books that block local bag regulations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Pennsylvania’s law, passed this year, prohibits local legislation for a one-year period that ends in July. Squilla has said he will amend his bill to take effect July 1.

Squilla’s bill, which is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday before City Council’s Licenses and Inspections Committee, would ban all single-use plastic bags in the city and require a 15-cent fee for other kinds of bags, including those made of paper or compostable material.

Here are some of the variations in policies enacted elsewhere:

  • Some laws do not ban plastic bags, but charge a fee or tax to customers who use them. Narberth’s policy falls into this category.
  • Others ban plastic bags, but have no fee for paper and other non-plastic bags. A New York state law set to take effect in March follows this model.
  • The retailer keeps the fee required for bags under some laws, including the proposal in Philadelphia. Elsewhere, the fee is a tax and the revenue goes to the municipality. Under a third variation, retailers keep some of the fee and remit the rest to the government.
  • The types of merchants subject to the regulations also vary, as does the thickness of plastic bag that is regulated. Washington’s bag tax, for example, applies only in stores that sell food and alcohol.
A woman covers her head with a plastic bag during a downpour in North Philadelphia in August.
Tim Tai / File Photograph
A woman covers her head with a plastic bag during a downpour in North Philadelphia in August.

Chicago banned bags, then swapped it for a tax

Chicago implemented a ban on thin plastic bags in 2015, without a fee for other types of bags. Some stores offered free thicker plastic bags as an alternative.

“People were taking these [thicker] bags, treating them as disposable bags as well, and they’re actually generating more waste,” said Homonoff, who studied the impact of the policy.

Chicago later repealed the ban, and in 2017 it began charging a 7-cent tax on all paper and plastic bags. After it took effect, Homonoff and other researchers found that disposable bag use decreased by 40%, and that fewer than half of customers in Chicago used disposable bags.

David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, helped develop Philadelphia’s bill and said that he’s learned from watching other cities that a “ban-fee hybrid" is now seen as a best practice for regulations, because implementing bans without charging for bags, as with Chicago’s first attempt, is not as effective.

Plastic bags are still available — for a fee — in D.C.

Washington implemented a 5-cent fee for plastic or paper bags in 2010. Merchants keep one cent and the remainder goes to a fund for cleanup of the Anacostia River.

Welde said he looked at the law in D.C. and a similar ordinance in neighboring Montgomery County, Md., when he first set out to draft legislation for Philadelphia because the cities have similar demographics.

Homonoff studied the bag taxes in the Washington metro area by comparing stores with the 5-cent tax to stores that had no fee but offered 5-cent discounts to customers who brought their own bags. She found that customers were more likely to change their behavior and bring reusable bags if they had to pay extra than if they got a refund for doing so.

“The plastic bag tax is very effective at changing people’s behavior, kind of amazingly so,” she said. “People respond more when the incentive is framed as a loss rather than a gain.”

But one study published this year in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management questioned the positive impact of bag regulations. It found that after a ban went into effect in California, 12 million more pounds of plastic trash bags were sold, as people no longer had plastic shopping bags to re-purpose at home.

“With a substantial proportion of carryout bags already reused in a way that avoided the manufacture and purchase of another plastic bag, policy evaluations that ignore leakage effects overstate the regulation’s welfare gains,” wrote researcher Rebecca Taylor, of the University of Sydney.

How does Philly’s 15-cent proposed fee stack up?

Philadelphia’s proposed 15-cent bag fee is relatively high compared with other U.S. cities. Boston implemented a plastic bag ban in December with a 5-cent fee for other bags. Seattle also has a 5-cent fee, and Maine has a statewide ban and 5-cent fee set to take effect next year.

Chicago’s 7-cent bag tax, of which the city keeps 5 cents, raised $6.3 million in 2018, according to financial reports. Philadelphia would not gain from its proposed fee because retailers would keep the money.

A few cities have higher fees; Aspen, Colo., charges 20 cents per paper bag.

“Five cents doesn’t get you as far as you used to,” Masur said. “There’s some data showing that consumers ... bringing their own bag drops off if the fee is too low.”

Squilla, however, said he is open to lowering the fee in his bill.

In the Philadelphia area, West Chester passed a ban without a fee that will go into effect in July, and Narberth’s 10-cent fee for bags began in April.

Narberth has not done any enforcement, and the small borough only has one national retailer — a RiteAid store, said Borough Manager Sean Metrick.

“I heard back from somebody who shopped there: ‘They charged me 10 cents,’" Metrick recalled. "And they were outraged. But I think it stopped them from using plastic bags.”