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Philly City Council reaches compromise on plastic bag ban and regulations on bed bugs infestations

Both bills are expected to pass City Council next week.

City Council chambers in Philadelphia.
City Council chambers in Philadelphia.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia City Council reached a compromise Thursday on enacting a plastic bag ban at all retail locations in the city.

The ban, which would take effect in July, was one of several bills amended by Council in its second-to-last meeting before its session ends this month. A final vote is expected next week.

Councilman Mark Squilla, who sponsored both the plastic bag ban and another bill implementing regulations for bedbug infestations, said, "It was a long process to come up with ways that both [bills] could do what the intended plan was.”

Three previous attempts to regulate single-use plastic bags had failed in Council in the last 12 years, and the current legislation was endangered after Mayor Jim Kenney’s opposition to a fee for paper or other nonbanned bags, and environmental groups pulled their support for the legislation.

Squilla’s amendment expands the definition of plastic bags banned under the legislation but excludes a fee for paper bags that retailers would use in place of plastic.

If the bill passes next week, Philadelphia would join a growing number of cities and states that have regulated plastic bag use. But the legislation still faces a potential hurdle with a state ban passed this year prohibiting any municipality from regulating plastic use for a period of one year. Although the bill is set to take effect after the state preemption expires, the legislature could extend that law.

» READ MORE: West Chester’s plastic-bag ban was ‘the right thing to do,’ officials say, even if it defies state law

Earlier versions of the bill would have only banned bags that are less than 2.25 mils thick. (A mil is one thousandth of an inch.) Environmentalists said retailers then could provide thicker — and more wasteful — plastic bags to customers. The change made Thursday would strengthen the ban by prohibiting any plastic bag made “through a blown-film extrusion process" — the method used to make most plastic bags.

David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, said he was “reservedly optimistic” about the changes made Thursday, but is concerned that the bill does not have any provisions for enforcement of the ban.

Retailers, who supported a version of the bill that included a fee for paper bags, now oppose the legislation. Because paper bags are more expensive than plastic, they say the lack of a fee would force them to pass on millions of dollars in added costs by raising the prices of other items.

Logan Welde, an attorney for the Clean Air Council, told Council members Thursday that he supported the amendment. But he urged them to consider adding a fee for all bags in the future to encourage consumers to bring reusable bags when they go shopping.

“The most efficient way to deal with this is to put a fee on bags,” Welde said. “Let the consumer make their market-driven and informed decision.”

The bill would exempt dry cleaners and deli counters from the ban.

The latest version of the bill would also require the city to release studies on bag use in stores before the ban takes effect, as well as six months and one year after the implementation date.

Environmental advocates hope those studies will allow the city to revisit the issue and examine whether the bill is effective at reducing waste and single-use bags.

The bag ban bill wasn’t the only one Squilla on Thursday revised with a redo amendment.

A bill to combat Philadelphia’s rampant bedbug problem in rental properties drew the ire of tenant-rights attorneys and scientists after Squilla added a landlord-friendly amendment in committee.

In the original bill, landlords had to pay for the cost of remediating bedbug infestations, but the amendment split the costs between landlords and tenants for infestations discovered more than 90 days after the start of a lease.

Advocates complained that the amendment could discourage low-income tenants from reporting infestations because they could not afford to pay for remediation.

The new amendment, approved unanimously on Thursday, requires landlords to pay for the remediation of infestations discovered within the first year of a lease. After that period, the costs will be split between landlords and tenants.

George Gould, an attorney with Community Legal Services advocating for tenant rights, said that while he would have preferred the original, he supported passage of the new amendment.

“We were blindsided [in committee] by several amendments that effectively weakened the bill.… We have since been working with the sponsor to try to undo the damage,” Gould said at Council on Thursday.

“The landlord lobby has been doing everything they can to derail the effectiveness of this bill … but we want the bill to move.”

Council is expected to vote on final passage of the bill at its Thursday meeting.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the thickness of plastic bags that would be banned under the legislation.