Philly’s plastic bag ban is working, but we can do better

This op-ed is reposted. Find the original Inquirer piece here.

The city of Philadelphia released a report last month evaluating Philadelphia’s plastic bag ban — which went into effect on July 1, 2021 — and how its requirements changed bag use in the city. The study found that while the ban was successful in dramatically reducing the use of plastic bags, people are still relying on disposable bags: Over half of the shopping bags in use are single-use paper and plastic bags. In fact, the study indicated the percentage of shoppers who used paper bags nearly tripled.

There is no question that recyclable paper bags are preferable to plastic, but the goal of the ban is to reduce the waste we make by eliminating all single-use bags — paper and plastic — in favor of reusable bags. Manufacturing paper bags has a considerable impact on the environment, and when those bags are distributed “for free,” shoppers will overuse them.

The most effective way to change consumer behavior is to legislate fees on all single-use bags. After Washington, D.C.’s 5-cent charge on paper and plastic bags went into effect in 2010, it led to a 60% decrease in household bag use. In San Jose, Calif., the amount of bag litter in the storm drain system decreased by 89% after plastic bags were banned and a 10-cent fee was added to paper bags.

Other important factors were not covered in Philadelphia’s Bag Use Study. It did not consider the roughly 2500 corner stores, bodegas, or “Papi stores” common to Philadelphia’s low-income communities. These stores, although an expensive shopping destination, are convenient for residents of Philadelphia’s less-served, low-income neighborhoods.

The city’s study was based on an approach referred to as a “difference-in-differences-study,” in which one group (shoppers subject to the plastic bag ban in Philadelphia) are compared to another (shoppers not subject to the ban in the suburbs). Researchers compared these groups both before and after the legislation went into effect. I am concerned, however, that demographic information as not included in the report. Without this, it is difficult to discern the impact of the bag ban on Philadelphia’s poorest residents.

Since the ban was implemented, the organization I work for, Clean Water Action, has received reports that many small stores are still using plastic bags or charging as much as 25 cents for a substandard reusable bag, often provided without notifying the customer.

Vendors are also providing paper and reusable bags. This is leading to an over-accumulation of both paper and reusable bags in kitchens and pantries all over the city, the same way that disposable plastic shopping bags accumulated prior to the ban. The situation is even worse in New Jersey, where all paper and plastic bags are banned statewide. The bottom-line: All bags, including reusable bags, are being treated as disposable — albeit more expensive — single-use bags.

Legislating carry-out bag fees require vendors to charge a minimum for each bag used. The fee is not a tax and is kept by the merchant to cover the cost of the bag. Most importantly, it levels the playing field.

Without a standard fee for all bags, non-unionized chain stores — which can spread the cost of bags across locations where there are no fees — can offer paper bags and even reusable bags at a reduced or no cost. This puts unionized competitors and smaller local vendors — who will have to charge more for bags to cover the costs of providing them — at a disadvantage. A legislated fee evens the playing field.

We need to also take into consideration the city’s failing recycling program under Mayor Jim Kenney. It doesn’t matter how recyclable paper bags are if they end up in the trash. During the Kenney administration, recycling has declined from 22% to 8%. The solution is the same: Add a fee to single-use bags and assure everyone has access to reusable bags.

We applaud the progress Philadelphia has made in reducing the use of plastics, but we can do even better. Pending in committee, Councilmember Mark Squilla’s proposed bring-your-own bag legislation is due to be heard in the coming weeks. The bill will amend the plastic bag ban, eliminating confusing language and requiring a minimum 15-cent fee on all non-plastic bags provided at checkout.

Call your City Councilmembers today and tell them to support Councilmember Squilla’s bring-your-own bag bill.

Maurice Sampson is the Eastern Pennsylvania Director for Clean Water Action and Philadelphia’s first Recycling Coordinator under former Mayor W Wilson Goode. He was also the primary author of the bill banning plastic bags and its proposed amendment.

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