by Phil Yacuboski
The move to ban plastic bags in Pennsylvania’s municipalities is on hold for at least one year, thanks to legislation signed by Governor Tom Wolf. Legislative agencies will now study the economic and environmental impact of such a law that has become a popular movement in other cities around the country.
“We support having the conversation on the state level. We support uniformity,” said Alex Baloga, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association. “What we’ve done over the years is we have been supportive of recycling programs. We’re a strong supporter of finding ways for the consumer to reduce their usage of these products through education.”
While there is no national ban on plastic bags, many states are moving toward doing away with them on a local level, arguing the single-use plastics are bad for the environment in the form of trash piling up in streams and rivers and litter on sidewalks and roadways. Delaware will ban them in 2021, citing environmental concerns. California enacted a statewide ban in 2016 and New York will begin banning single-use plastic bags in 2020. Several cities where there are not state bans are also considering the measure like Atlanta, Baltimore and Hoboken, New Jersey. There are exemptions in some cases; some grocers are also taxed in addition to the ban.
“We have some concerns with a statewide ban or fee on these products,” said Baloga, “because we think there should be expanded recycling and an education component.”
Plastic bags are cheap, according to merchants whereas paper bags are more expensive. Those on the other side of the argument believe shoppers should be encouraged to reuse grocery bags.
“Sea turtles are choking on plastic bags and we have a chronic littering problem,” said David Masur, executive director of Penn Environment, a Philadelphia-based environmental watchdog group, which has been fighting for the ban. “I think the public has realized that the use for a few minutes only once and being out in the environment for hundreds of years, is not beneficial. There’s a lot inaction on this issue in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C.”
He said much of it is linked to behavior.
“We have to change our habits,” he said. “If you go to grocery store looking for a plastic bag and there’s a ban, you’ll be forced to buy a bag or bring your own. It will make people either change their habits or look at what how they might be damaging the environment.”
Plastic manufacturing is big business in Pennsylvania, according to the Plastics Industry Association. They argue its responsible for nearly 50,000 jobs in the state. Pennsylvania ranks seventh nationwide.
“We do think it’s possible to work with the stakeholders,” said Baloga. “We don’t think this is a losing battle. Curbside recycling is a big success and we think we can do even better.”
State Republican leader Jake Corman of Centre County pushed for the one year pause because his district includes a plastics manufacturer and a township that is considering a tax on plastic bags.
In 2017, Wolf vetoed legislation preventing counties and municipalities from taxing or banning plastic bags.