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Most businesses aren’t following Philly’s new plastic bag ban yet, survey says

The nonprofit advocacy group PennEnvironment found that a majority of companies it looked at are not complying with the city's new plastic bag ban.

File: Pedestrians carry plastic bags in Philadelphia.
File: Pedestrians carry plastic bags in Philadelphia.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

The nonprofit advocacy group PennEnvironment says many businesses are failing to comply with Philadelphia’s new plastic bag ban, which went into effect in October, with fines beginning next year.

It also found some are using thicker bags than before and claiming they are reusable when they are not.

“They are blatantly breaking the law,” said Faran Savitz, conservation associate for PennEnvironment.

PennEnvironment staff and volunteers visited more than 50 retail stores to see if they were complying with the ban on single-use bags. They found more than half in violation, with 27 stores still providing plastic bags that are illegal under the new law.

The group also found stores that were following the law fully, “so there’s no reason other stores can’t comply,” Savitz said.

Philadelphia’s plastic bag ordinance, originally approved two years ago, was delayed by the pandemic. It prohibits businesses from using single-use plastic bags for purchases. The city launched an awareness campaign in July.

Though the law is in place, the city won’t start full enforcement, which includes fines, until April 1 in order to provide businesses ample time to prepare. Currently, the Department of Licenses and Inspections is only issuing warnings.

Karen Guss, a city spokesperson, said that officials believe compliance rates are good but that Licenses and Inspections has sent 85 warning letters to businesses, with an additional 22 being prepared. She said the warnings are having “the desired effect.”

PennEnvironment contends businesses have known about the ban long enough to have used up old bags and prepare for the new rule.

“There’s been plenty of time for retailers to understand the law and follow it,” Savitz noted.

The goal of the ban is to help clean city streets and waterways of litter, as well as achieve an overall reduction in plastic waste.

City officials say Philadelphians use one billion plastic bags each year, many of which litter streets, waterways, and commercial corridors. The bags are not recyclable, though people try stuffing them into blue bins anyway. The lightweight plastic gets tangled in equipment at recycling facilities.

Businesses are supposed to hang signs to inform customers of the ban. The law applies to supermarkets, convenience stores, service stations, department stores, clothing stores, restaurants, food trucks, farmers markets, and delivery services.

Paper bags are allowed but must contain at least 40% recycled content.

Reusable plastic bags are acceptable but must be more than 2.25 mils thick. PennEnvironment cited several major retailers and even a state-owned liquor store as not in compliance.

Businesses cannot use plastic bags created through what’s known as a blown film extrusion process — the primary way most have been created.

“We cannot let companies run roughshod over Philadelphia’s environmental laws,” Savitz said.

There is no city requirement for retailers to charge a fee for the legal, thicker bags as in other states and municipalities with plastic bag bans, though some have been charging.

Savitz said one issue with the allowable thicker bags is that many people really don’t reuse them, resulting in even more plastic being thrown away.

He credits the city for “providing information and resources for retailers and the public.”

“We want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the many Philadelphia businesses that no longer use plastic bags and the Philadelphia residents who now bring reusable bags with them when they shop,” said Guss, the city spokesperson.

The city is asking residents to report violations through the 311 phone system.

Guss also said the department has heard some retailers have switched to thicker plastic bags and are claiming they are permissible when they are not.

Mayor Kenney’s administration supports an amendment to the plastic bag ordinance being proposed by Councilmember Mark Squilla that would clarify the term single-use plastic bag.

The bill would also possibly impose a 15-cent fee per bag if their use does not decline 80% by Jan. 1, 2023. However, the administration has not voiced support for that.

This story has been updated to reflect that the Kenney administration has only voiced support for further defining the term single-use plastic bag under a proposed bill.