After three failed attempts in the last 12 years, Philadelphia is close to banning single-use plastic bags. But the effort has lost some of its key supporters: environmental groups that have long lobbied for regulation of the bags.

A City Council committee approved the ban on plastic bags last month. But lawmakers also removed a proposed 15-cent fee for other types of bags after Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration raised concerns that the fee, which would have been charged to shoppers, would disproportionately affect poor residents.

Environmentalists say that could backfire by failing to encourage consumers to bring their own reusable bags.

“The fee was an important part because at the point of sale it creates an additional disincentive for the consumer to take the bag,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment.

Without a fee on paper and other types of bags, Masur and other environmentalists fear, plastic pollution could increase, because retailers could distribute thick plastic bags that are not banned under the legislation and are even more harmful. Overall grocery bills could also rise, Masur said, because retailers would not be able to recoup the cost of alternative bags.

Nic Esposito, the director of Kenney’s Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, said the administration has always been in favor of eliminating plastic bags. A ban without a fee to encourage reusable bags would allow for a “phased-in approach,” he said, and city leaders could continue discussing the issue.

“In Philadelphia, we do also have to weigh what happens when fees are imposed,” he said. “This isn’t like a one and done, we passed this bill and we’re never going to talk about plastic bags again,” he said.

City Councilman Mark Squilla, the bill’s sponsor, said he was surprised to hear days before the committee hearing that the mayor’s office wanted to remove the fee.

“We’ve been talking about this legislation for a long time, so it was a shocker to me that they would be opposed to the fee,” Squilla said. “I thought we had something that would have been able to get enough support by Council and the administration to pass.”

Squilla said he agreed to remove the fee in order to gain the committee’s approval of the bill and is concerned about its future. But he still hopes to reach a compromise. One idea, he said, would include exempting consumers who are enrolled in food assistance programs from paying the bag fee.

A pedestrian at 3rd and Market carries food items in a plastic bag on June 20, 2019, while a sweeping ban on single-use plastic bags was introduced Thursday in Philadelphia City Council.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
A pedestrian at 3rd and Market carries food items in a plastic bag on June 20, 2019, while a sweeping ban on single-use plastic bags was introduced Thursday in Philadelphia City Council.

Esposito said there were also concerns from City Council members. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez spoke out at a recent committee hearing against a fee, calling it regressive. She opposes the city’s tax on soda and other sweetened beverages — Kenney’s signature achievement — for the same reason.

Logan Welde, a staff attorney for the Clean Air Council, said paper bags are more expensive, are heavier, and take up more space than single-use plastic bags. Imposing a fee for them or for thicker plastic bags, he said, is necessary as an incentive for shoppers to bring their own bags. Otherwise, Welde said, the city could risk creating more waste.

“When you’re dealing with legislation like this, you have to take into account what the substitute would be," he said. “If just banning plastic bags was going to be a good outcome for the city and the environment, I think we all would have been on board with it.”

The bill would only ban bags that are less than 2.25 millimeters thick, the accepted standard for single-use bags. When Chicago instituted a single-use plastic bag ban without a fee, retailers offered thicker plastic bags free because they were still cheaper than paper bags. Chicago’s law has since been replaced with a 7-cent tax on both paper and plastic bags.

“You actually end up with more reliance on single-use plastics or pollution, not less,” Masur said of a possible outcome in Philadelphia. “At that point, the environmental community can’t sign off on that.”

Retailers could still impose their own fees for bags, Esposito said.

But Welde said the environmental groups worked with retailers and had gained support for the legislation that included a fee. Without a fee, across-the-board shopping costs may increase, he said.

“I just really want to be really clear that there is no free bag,” Welde said. “The retailer is getting money for that bag and the consumer is paying for that bag. It’s just a hidden cost.”