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Philadelphia Council rejects plastic-bag ban

Philly has bagged its bag ban. For now. City Council yesterday voted down a measure - two years in the making - that would have nixed carry-home plastic bags from major stores, allowing only paper, compostable plastic, and reusable bags.

Philly has bagged its bag ban. For now.

City Council yesterday voted down a measure - two years in the making - that would have nixed carry-home plastic bags from major stores, allowing only paper, compostable plastic, and reusable bags.

The 10-6 vote came after the environmental committee earlier this year withdrew a similar bill, which would have enacted a 25-cent fee on plastic bags.

But the bill's supporters vowed that the battle of the bags is far from over and that they would work all the harder to, as Councilman James Kenney put it, "catch up with the world."

Even Councilman Darrell L. Clarke, who voted against yesterday's measure, said he was "prepared to continue to engage. I do think something should be done."

Worldwide, prompted by concerns about litter and the environmental cost of widespread use of thin-film disposable-plastic bags, about a dozen nations have enacted bans or similar measures. So have companies such as Ikea and Whole Foods.

Earlier this month, Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, said the bags "should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere."

His statements accompanied a report assessing marine litter in the 12 major regional seas around the world.

In May, State Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery/Delaware) introduced a bill calling for a two-cent fee on plastic bags given out by larger stores. It has been referred to the finance committee.

"We are using these plastic bags, which last for hundreds and hundreds of years, unnecessarily. There are alternatives," he said yesterday. Similar bills have been introduced in New Jersey.

Several other U.S. cities have proposed similar measures; Baltimore is considering a 25-cent fee. First was San Francisco, which successfully enacted a ban in 2007, but since then, the industry has fought back hard.

Seattle passed a 20-cent fee on plastic in 2008, but in the weeks following, the industry sent a phalanx of out-of-state workers to town to gather signatures for petitions that would derail the measure, said Heather Trim of People for Puget Sound, an advocacy group.

The move was successful, and now Seattle voters will decide the question in an August ballot measure.

In other places, the plastics industry has filed legal action against bag fees or bans.

Saying they were appalled at the aggressive tactics, Council members launched a few salvos of their own yesterday.

Council held off on similar legislation two years ago and contended that a lack of cooperation from the industry since then forced them this time to dig in their heels.

Councilman Frank DiCicco said the American Chemistry Council, a vigorous opponent, was "manipulative" and "showed little integrity throughout" the process.

His aide, Brian Abernathy, said the industry "misrepresented" facts at the public hearing - "i.e., plastic biodegrades and that the legislation would cost hundreds of jobs. Or that it would harm poor people more than others."

"In five years of working in Council," Abernathy said, "I've never dealt with a lobbying effort like this."

Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for the American Chemistry Council, denied the claims. He maintained that a "tax" - a term supporters of the bill have objected to - would "clearly impact people with limited incomes" more than others.

He said that Council's action yesterday was "the right approach." He contended that instead of encouraging reusable bags, a plastic ban would simply result in a shift to paper, which studies show has a greater environmental impact.

He said that the industry had made progress, nationwide and in the region, and that, while Kenney and DiCicco said promises had not been kept, it was simply a matter of the industry's not keeping Council informed.

Kenney also denounced Jeff Brown, owner of five ShopRite stores within the city limits, for his vigorous opposition to the bag ban.

Kenney said Brown "would like to see the streets continue to look they way they do" - a reference to ubiquitous plastic litter - and said he would urge people to "spend their money elsewhere."

Clarke, however, praised Brown because he "is willing to go into neighborhoods where no one else will."

ShopRite spokeswoman Karen Meleta said that Brown was unavailable and that she could not comment on remarks she had not heard firsthand.

But she added that Brown and ShopRite "are very engaged and concerned about the environment and have taken steps long before it was fashionable to do so."

She touted the success of the store's bag-reduction efforts, which include plastic-bag recycling and crediting customers five cents for every canvas, heavy plastic, or other reusable bag they use.

The city's new Greenworks plan has endorsed measures to limit plastic-bag use. When Mayor Nutter introduced the plan earlier this year, he chanted to an audience at the Franklin Institute: "No more plastic bags!"

Kenney said he would spend his summer motivating environmental groups.

Many are already on board. Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, said yesterday's vote was "a step in the wrong direction for Philadelphia."

"These single-use plastic bags will continue to litter our streets and parks, fill our landfills, harm urban wildlife, clog our sewers, and cost taxpayers millions of dollars," he said.

Among those who voted against the ban were Councilman Frank Rizzo, who had supported it in committee.

"I learned a little bit I didn't know," he said after the vote. "I don't think we're done."

He said that the bag fee was confusing and that, "until we have a suitable alternative, we just shouldn't ban something."