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Philly delays plastic bag ban until January amid coronavirus pandemic

Mayor Jim Kenney said the city's plastic bag ban will now take effect in January. Environmental advocates who spent years pushing for the new law are not happy.

A plastic bag on the ground in Center City.
A plastic bag on the ground in Center City.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia’s ban on single-use plastic bags will be delayed until January due to the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Jim Kenney announced Wednesday.

The ban, which Kenney signed into law in December and had been scheduled to take effect July 2, "is no longer realistic,” he said at a news conference.

The announcement came as welcome news to retailers but was met with confusion and disappointment from environmental groups and Councilmember Mark Squilla, who sponsored the legislation.

Squilla questioned whether the administration had the power to change when the law, as passed by City Council, takes effect.

But Kelly Cofrancisco, a Kenney administration spokesperson, said that the city’s law department determined that implementation of bills can be delayed without additional legislative action.

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Squilla said he understood if the administration could not focus on enforcing the ban during the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting budget crisis, but hoped customers would still try to remember to bring their own bags.

“The main goal is for folks to use the reusable bags,” he said.

The legislation will now go into effect Jan. 1, Kenney said. By February, all businesses must post signage informing customers about the ban. And enforcement will begin in April 2021.

Jeff Brown, who owns six ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores in Philadelphia and has publicly clashed with Kenney over the city’s tax on soda and sweetened beverages, said the mayor “was smart” to delay the law’s effective date.

“I’m for making moves to improve litter in Philadelphia,” said Brown, who did not oppose the legislation as it moved through City Council last year. “It’s just not feasible right now."

In addition to other supply chain issues facing grocery stores during the coronavirus pandemic, Brown said that it is difficult for stores to obtain paper bags because so many cities and states have passed regulations on plastic.

» READ MORE: Philly City Council reaches compromise on plastic bag ban and regulations on bed bugs infestations

Environmental groups, meanwhile, expressed disappointment over the delay.

David Masur, executive director of Penn Environment, said he was caught off guard when he heard about it Wednesday morning. He said he expressed to the administration it was “tone deaf” to make such an announcement on Earth Day.

After years of working with Squilla and other officials, environmental advocates, and business owners to regulate single-use plastic bags in the city, Masur said, he was disappointed to see the administration make a unilateral decision.

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"I think this came up with very little input,” Masur said, adding that it seemed excessive to delay the ban until January rather than simply reevaluate after a shorter time.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia is eyeing a ban on plastic bags. Here’s how that’s worked in other cities.

The legislation passed in December will ban single-use plastic bags at retail establishments in the city. Retailers can still provide paper or other reusable bags to customers, but advocates and business owners have warned that it could cause increased prices in stores because paper bags are more expensive than plastic.

Kenney, for his part, noted that “this is not an announcement we want to make during Earth Week," and thanked both businesses and environmental advocates for cooperating with the change.

“We know the climate crisis and plastic pollution remain very serious threats to our planet and society, even during a global pandemic," Kenney said.