A sweeping ban on single-use plastic bags was introduced Thursday in Philadelphia City Council in a bill that would also impose a relatively hefty 15-cent fee on any recyclable paper bag or other reusable bags a merchant might provide to a customer.
The ban, if adopted, would apply to supermarkets, convenience stores, service stations, department stores, dollar stores, clothing stores, restaurants, food trucks, farmers’ markets, dry cleaners, and delivery service.
That means you won’t be able to get a plastic bag to hold your goods at ShopRite, Wawa, or Macy’s without paying extra for it. The money collected from the fee would go to the merchant, not the city.
The bill, crafted by Councilman Mark Squilla, would make Philadelphia’s ban a hybrid of similar ordinances around the region and country, because it combines both a ban and a heavier-than-usual fee. Ordinances attempting to regulate single-use plastic bags, and there are now hundreds around the U.S., typically either impose an outright ban or a 5- or 10-cent fee on the bags.
Philadelphia’s ordinance would combine both in an attempt to discourage all but the most determined customer to get a bag from a retailer.
The bill has four cosponsors and support from Mayor Jim Kenney, he said. It will go before the full Council in the fall.
“If we are looking to reduce trash and the carbon footprint, then this is one way to start the process,” Squilla said.
This is Squilla’s second attempt to tackle plastic bags. In 2015, he tried to propose a 5-cent fee for single-use bags, but the bill died.
This time, however, Squilla met for months with multiple environmental groups including PennEnvironment, Clean Air Council, and Clean Water Action for input on the bill.
Squilla also met with Jeff Brown, owner of a string of ShopRites in the area. Brown has been widely critical of the city’s soda tax, so gaining his support would give the ordinance traction for adoption. However, unlike the soda tax, any fees collected would go to the merchant, not the city.
Kroger, the nation’s biggest grocery chain, has said it will begin banning plastic bags at checkout lanes by 2025.
Squilla is hoping for an 80 percent reduction in single-use plastic bags within the first year.
Plastic bags not only cause problems in machinery at recycling plants, Squilla said, but also “end up in our trash, sewers, rivers, trees.”
The ordinance has the support of environmental groups.
Logan Welde, an attorney with Clean Air Council, believes the ordinance would "reduce single-bag usage by almost 85 percent.” He said he hopes the fee on reusable bags will be effective in changing people’s behaviors.
Similarly, David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, said: “I think the councilman deserves a lot of credit. I think he looked at a lot of the best bills around the nation to come up with this. We think this creates a financial incentive for grocers to get on board.”
The ban faces some pushback from the plastic industry, Squilla said, but he is working with retailers.
“Unfortunately the proposal today to ban and tax grocery bags in Philly is another hit to residents who are already overtaxed," said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry lobbying group. "The proposal will not meaningfully reduce overall litter or waste, but will cost taxpayers millions.”
The ordinance would go into effect 90 days after adoption. Here’s how it would work:
At checkout, merchants would no longer be allowed to put items in single-use plastic bags, defined as being less than 2.25 mils thick or nonrecyclable paper bags. Some bags would be exempt, such as those used to package fruits and vegetables, or used to contain wrapped meats or fish.
If the retailer offers a recyclable paper bag or reusable bag thicker than 2.25 mils, it must charge the customer 15 cents. That also applies to deliveries.
The additional price and number of bags sold would be marked on the checkout receipt.
Retailers would be required to post signs notifying customers of the ban and any charges.
With this bill, the city joins a growing backlash across the country on ubiquitous plastic bags. Officials say the bags pollute waterways or are found strung in trees in forests and entangle wildlife. But they also say the bags contribute to climate change because they are made from fossil fuel.
In 2016, California became the first state to impose a statewide ban on single-use plastic at stores. It charged a 10-cent fee for recycled paper bags and other reusable plastic bags. Hawaii also has a ban, and New York has approved a ban to go into effect in 2020.
In 2017, the Pennsylvania legislature took the opposite track: It tried to ban municipalities from banning single-use plastic bags. But the measure died with a veto threat from Gov. Tom Wolf.
If Philadelphia’s ordinance is approved, it would join Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in banning single-use plastic bags, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Boulder, Colo., New York City, Portland, Ore., and Washington all have bans and additional fees.
“We have learned a lot of lessons from other municipalities,” Welde said.