If Pennsylvania wants to become the fourth U.S. state to ban retail plastic bags, we’ll have to wait. On June 28, Governor Tom Wolf signed a budget-related law that blocks municipal bans or taxes on plastic bags and packaging for at least one year, with the stated goal of giving legislators time to research the potential economic and environmental impact. The move came eight days after Philadelphia Councilmember Mark Squilla introduced a bill to ban single-use plastic bags across the city and charge 15 cents for reusable alternatives.

Major concerns around single-use plastic bags — the kind shoppers typically put groceries in — include that they clog drains, tangle up marine animals, and add to the billions of pounds of plastic that end up in our oceans every year. Recent studies have also highlighted high carbon emissions from plastic production, which a May report from the Center for International Environmental Law contends is accelerating climate change.

The movement to reduce plastic use has grown, with hundreds of cities and counties across the U.S. moving to ban or tax bags. California imposed a statewide ban in 2016, all Hawaiian counties have banned nonrecyclable bags, and New York passed a ban in March to go into effect next year, alongside a charge for paper bags, as is used in California.

But not everyone is on board. Ten states besides Pennsylvania have preemptively blocked bag bans, according to a study by Reuse this Bag, a group that produces recyclable alternatives. Opponents believe the bans are too restrictive on business, threaten plastic industry jobs, and have questionable environmental benefits. Researchers and environmental reporters have noted that plastic bans can drive up the use of paper, which might be worse for the environment, and other materials that are resource-intensive to produce, raising the same old questions about carbon emissions.

The Inquirer turned to local policymakers working on this issue to give their takes: Should Pennsylvania pass a plastic bag ban, once the governor’s block lifts?

Local governments need a bag ban to reduce litter, sewage clogs, and landfill stress.

In the final days of Pennsylvania budget negotiations, a state senator inserted language in a related bill that would prevent Pennsylvania from regulating single use-plastic bags. This is an example of political power trumping environmental policy in Harrisburg. Plastic bag bans are needed — and other places have shown that they work.

Shoppers worldwide use about 500 billion single-use plastic bags annually. Without significant action, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by weight by 2050, according to a 2016 World Economic Forum report.

Unlike Pennsylvania, many U.S. municipalities, and countries throughout the world, have already begun to address the bag problem. In the U.S. alone, 349 states and local governments have banned or taxed plastic bags, according to Forbes. In 2009, for example, the District of Columbia passed legislation requiring businesses to charge a five-cent fee for paper and plastic bags. As a result, a majority of businesses reduced their disposable bag distribution by at least 50%.

Yet in our state, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) inserted a provision in the Fiscal Code to prohibit the Commonwealth and its municipalities from regulating single-use plastic bags and other containers for one year — ostensibly to study the issue.

Many Pennsylvania municipal associations already support a ban.

It’s unclear why we need another year of study to prepare for a ban, when other plastic bag programs have already established a path to success. Rather, Corman’s actions are consistent with continuing efforts to protect the plastic bag industry. In 2015, then-state Rep. Mike Hanna — who, like Corman, represents a district that contains a plant operated by Novolex, a major plastic bag manufacturer — introduced legislation to block plastic bag bans. The legislation was defeated in the House. Similar legislation passed the House and Senate in 2017, but was vetoed by Governor Wolf, who at the time said it was "not consistent with the rights vested by the Environmental Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution.” It is disappointing that the governor would now approve language he had previously declared unconstitutional.

This statewide block on bag bans would also impede cities’ efforts to tackle the issue themselves, including Philadelphia’s recent efforts to move forward on this issue.

That would be a particular shame, because many Pennsylvania municipal associations already support a ban. Legislation to prevent plastic bag regulation has been opposed by the Pennsylvania Municipal League, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, and the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs. Local governments want the tools of plastic-bag fees and bans to help them deal with truly local problems, such as litter, clogged storm drains and sewers, and the stress on landfills.

Weeks after the new ban restrictions went into effect, West Chester Boroughpassed an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags. The borough delayed implementation of this ordinance until July 2020 in response to the state law.

That’s an alarming sign of things to come, that much-needed plastic bag regulations will be prevented or delayed because our elected officials in Harrisburg have allowed the actions of one powerful senator to carry the day.

State Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware, Montgomery) represents the 166th District. gvitali@pahouse.net

Paper bags being used for to-go orders at JACO juice and taco bar in downtown West Chester.
ANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer
Paper bags being used for to-go orders at JACO juice and taco bar in downtown West Chester.

A ban yields minimal environmental benefit while hurting industry.

The government issues blanket bans on few products. The list includes items such as illicit drugs, Cuban cigars, and ivory products. In Pennsylvania, could this list soon include plastic bags? One of these things is not like the others.

Single-use plastic regulations present a host of public policy challenges beyond first blush. The first and most obvious question: “What replaces plastic bags?” Based on cost and availability, the answer is likely paper. Are paper bags or other alternatives really better for the environment?

The raw materials, energy, and water required to manufacture various nonplastic bags offset the benefits of using them. Consider: A paper bag would need to be used at least three times before its total environmental impact equaled that of single use of a polyethylene plastic bag. A reusable cotton bag would have to be used 131 times before its environmental impact equaled that of a single use of a polyethylene plastic bag.

If that “single use” plastic bag is reused three times, the environmental impact of the alternatives is even greater. For example, one would need to use a reusable cotton bag 393 times to achieve the same environmental impact achieved by using a plastic bag first at the grocery store, a second time to carry personal items, and, finally, to collect trash. This is according to a 2011 study from the Environment Agency, a leading public body protecting the environment in England and Wales.

When a single-use plastic bag ban was implemented in California, the sale of small plastic garbage bags increased 120%, nearly equaling the total amount of plastic removed by the ban. This also increases costs for local, independent businesses and acts as a regressive tax on consumers who can spare the least. Then there’s the sanitary and convenience concerns of asking shoppers to find their own plastic bags to collect dog poop, or carry items like leaky trays of raw meat — for which tote bags threaten a petri dish of germs.

Are paper bags or other alternatives really better for the environment?

Economically, 14 plastic bag manufacturing facilities across Pennsylvania employ more than 1,500 of our citizens, per our research at the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association. This industrial activity is a part of more than 5,500 plastics sheet and packaging industry jobs in our commonwealth, representing more than $400 million in labor income and more than $2.5 billion in economic output. Manufacturing jobs are meaningful, collaborative, family-sustaining jobs, averaging over $70,000 a year. With Pennsylvania’s recent developments in the natural gas and petrochemical manufacturing industry, we are positioned to attract more investment.

Yet a ban would yield minimal benefit. Recent studies determined that China, Indonesia, and the Philippines are, by far, the largest contributors to plastic waste in our oceans and that Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries like the United States contributed only 5 percent of mismanaged plastic waste.

There is a way to balance environmental impact and economic opportunity — it’s just not a government ban. We all ought to reduce the amount of unrecycled plastics in our environmental systems. Simply reuse the bag as many times as is sanitary or take it to a recycling collection bin at the entrance of many retail stores. The answer to this problem seems to be moderation and personal responsibility — not government. Be mindful, use less, recycle more.

Carl A. Marrara is the vice president of Government Affairs for the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, the nonprofit, statewide trade organization representing the manufacturing sector in Pennsylvania’s public policy process.

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