Plastic retail bags may soon be a thing of the past - or at least, a costly luxury - in Philadelphia.
Under a contentious measure being brought before City Council today, shoppers would be charged 25 cents for every plastic bag they receive at any store. Businesses with more than $1 million in annual sales would give 75 percent of the fees to the city; smaller stores could keep the fees.
If the measure passes - which appears likely - Philadelphia would join a growing number of cities enacting bans or fees to reduce plastic bag use, both to address environmental concerns and reduce litter.
Environmental advocates have praised the effort, saying people will turn to reusable bags. They also say it will help Philadelphia save money on waste disposal and street cleaning and prevent sewer clogs caused by bags.
The industry says the fee would derail recycling efforts, penalize the poor, and ultimately harm the environment because most stores would simply shift from plastic to paper, which it contends has a bigger environmental footprint.
Councilman Frank DiCicco, who sponsored the bill, said he was confident it would pass, now that he's allayed colleagues' concerns for the poor.
"I said, 'Look, if you have a reusable bag and take it to the store, it's not going to cost anything.' It's a matter of retooling minds to bring something to the store besides money."
The effort also rated a nod in the city's new "greening" plan, Greenworks Philadelphia. Last week, when Mayor Nutter introduced it at the Franklin Institute, he chanted: "No more plastic bags!"
A vote could come next week; the program would be phased in over a year, starting with larger big-box stores.
Meanwhile, in an effort to green up their product, the nation's four biggest plastic-bag manufacturers last month announced that they would begin phasing in more recycled content, which is currently next to nil, with a goal of having 40 percent recycled content in all bags by 2015.
In announcing this "new plastic bag for the 21st century," Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council, said it would conserve enough natural gas - used to make the bags - to heat 200,000 homes a year.
On Tuesday, an industry group urged Philadelphia to focus instead on antilitter campaigns and said it would fund recycling efforts through the Keep Philadelphia Beautiful organization.
The pro-industry nonprofit, Progressive Bag Affiliates, said that if the average family brought home 1,460 retail bags a year, the new fee would cost them $365.
Philadelphia had considered a plastic-bag ban, like an existing one in San Francisco, in 2007.
Under intense pressure from the industry - and promises to take the lead on recycling - the environment committee here tabled it.
"They promised us an educational program" and more places to recycle, he said.
But all that faded away, said DiCicco and the bill's cosponsor, James Kenney.
"If anything, we have seen a reduction in those sites," DiCicco said. Kenney said much the same thing last week: "I'm frankly disappointed in the industry."
The current proposal ups the ante on Seattle, which last July imposed a 20-cent fee on plastic and paper. (Seattle also banned food and drink containers made from polystyrene foam, a move being considered here.)
Other cities that have passed or are considering bag bans or taxes include Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, the District of Columbia, Miami, several California communities, and Portland, Ore.
Taxes or bans have also been passed abroad, including in Ireland, South Africa, Italy, and Bangladesh.
The plastics industry has vigorously opposed the U.S. measures, sometimes filing legal action. Last month, an industry group asked a California court to overturn Palo Alto's ban. It contended the city had violated state law by failing to adequately consider environmental impacts.
On Friday, the front lines of the battle shifted to Philadelphia, when more than two dozen people testified at a committee hearing.
Advocates held signs - "Green fee is for me" - and one man wore a cloak and hat made from 500 plastic bags, the amount one person is estimated to use in a year.
Several fifth graders, coaxed out of shyness by their teacher, also testified for the fee.
Katie Edwards, project coordinator for the Clean Air Council, pointed out that IKEA, Whole Foods Markets, and ALDI Grocery Stores have taken steps to eliminate plastic bags. "These programs are working," she said. "They have not been met with resistance from their customers."
Suzanne Biemiller, of the mayor's Office of Sustainability, said the water department spent $60,000 last year fishing plastic bags from waterways and spoke of the "psychological costs" that bag litter "inflicts on our neighborhoods."
But antipoverty advocate Vivian VanStory, founder of the nonprofit Community Land Trust Corp. in North Philadelphia, said the fee would put an unfair burden on poor people, who would not be able to afford the bags.
Industry says banning plastic bags could cost jobs, but environmentalists say the jobs would merely shift.
"The flip side of the coin is that entrepreneurs around the country have started countless small businesses selling reusable bags," said Justin Brame, a local account manager for the ChicoBag company, which makes reusable bags.
More than a dozen industry representatives testified, from bag manufacturers to chemical company executives.
Rocco D'Antonio, business development manager of Penn Jersey Paper Co., a bag distributor in Philadelphia, said taxing plastic bags into oblivion would terminate in-store recycling programs, sending other plastics recycled through the program - including dry-cleaner bags and newspaper bags - back into the waste stream.
Richard McMenamin, owner of two ShopRite stores in Philadelphia, said he preferred incentives such as the two-to-five-cent-per-bag rebates that ShopRite offers, instead of the fees.
In 2008, he said, ShopRite customers reused more than 22 million bags and bought more than 1.7 million nondisposable bags.
The industry says plastic-bag recycling is growing and should be encouraged.
"The thing we need to do is increase awareness," said Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the American Chemistry Council.
DiCicco, who picked up about a dozen plastic bags in front of his house one recent Saturday, is unmoved by such arguments.
These lightweight plastic bags, he said, "just don't go away. They're not biodegradable. We've become a throwaway society. But there really is no such thing as away."