After Kenney pocket veto, future of single-use bag fee in Philly uncertain

A 15-cent bag fee passed City Council, then died on Mayor Kenney’s desk. Proponents aren’t giving up, but the new mayor’s stance isn’t clear.

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Pedestrians carry plastic bags in Philadelphia

File hoto: Pedestrians carry plastic bags, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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The fate of a 15 cent fee on single-use bags in Philadelphia is uncertain after former mayor Jim Kenney killed the bill that would have required it on his way out of office.

Supporters of the fee plan to keep pushing. But it’s not yet clear whether Mayor Cherelle Parker — who has framed quality of life issues like litter as major priorities — will be more supportive of the idea.

“We’re not, in no way, discouraged,” said Aminata Sandra Calhoun, a West Philly environmental justice advocate who leads cleanups for Centennial Parkside CDC and supports the single-use bag fee. “Whatever it takes to eliminate and reduce [litter] — I’m for it, one thousand percent.”

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The amendment to the city’s plastic bag ban, which would have required retailers to charge a 15 cent fee for bags provided at the point of sale and simplified the definition of banned plastic bags to include those thicker than 2.25 mils, passed City Council by a wide margin last month. But Kenney declined to sign the legislation by the end of his term, allowing it to expire without giving Council a chance to override a veto. This process is known as a “pocket veto.”

Proponents argue a bag fee would reduce waste and litter in the city by deterring customers from choosing single-use bags of any kind, and instead encouraging them to bring their own reusable bags.

“If a person has to purchase a bag for 15 cents, they would actually think about it — ‘do I really want to spend 15 cents on … something that I’m going to throw away and not use again?” said Teea Tynes, a resident of the Fairhill neighborhood of North Philly who helps lead Trash Academy and is a member of HACE’s Neighborhood Advisory Subcommittee and Fairhill Neighbors.

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But Kenney’s administration opposed the mandatory fee. Télyse Masaoay, then a representative of Kenney’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, argued during a committee hearing in early December that a 15-cent bag fee would harm low-income customers and mom-and-pop stores, according to Metro Philadelphia.

“Adding a 15-cent fee per bag may ultimately push Philadelphians to shop outside of the city limits to avoid this added cost or push businesses outside of the city,” Masaoay told the committee.

A fee was eliminated from the original bill before it was passed in 2019, after then-Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez framed the fee as a regressive tax that would hurt poor people living in food deserts.

But supporters of the fee disagree. Tynes said many customers who patronize supermarkets in marginalized neighborhoods are accustomed to purchasing or bringing their own bags, as some shops simply don’t provide them.

“Why put it on minority and marginalized communities?” Tynes said. “I think that’s just not looking at what the real burden is to those communities — [like] me having to sweep up those bags, slip on those bags, see them in trees.”

Councillmember Mark Squilla, who sponsored the original plastic bag ban and the amendment to require the fee, pointed to a city-funded study on the effectiveness of the ban in supermarkets one year in — which found plastic bag use plummeted while paper bag use increased. 

“The fee [is] to reduce the total number of bags being distributed,” Squilla said.

The council member said he plans to re-introduce the bill this term.

“Hopefully we could get as many people on board as we had this time — and work with the new Administration and see what their take is on it first, so we could try to do it cohesively with the Administration and Council,” he said.

Of the 13 Council members who voted in favor of the bill last year, 11 remain on Council. If the votes  come down the same way on a re-introduced version, the measure will pass.

Several new members of City Council have not yet decided whether they would support the bill were it reintroduced. District 5 Councilmember Jay Young would weigh the impact on constituents, and At-large Councilmember Nina Ahmad would seek data about the impacts of similar legislation in other places before taking a position on the bill, according to spokespeople.

At-large Councilmember Rue Landau would vote in favor of a bag fee.

“We need to support small businesses that are doing their part to uphold the City’s plastic bag ban, which is an important step toward creating a more sustainable Philadelphia,” she said in a statement provided by a spokesperson. “The addition of a nominal fee will help these businesses recoup some of the costs associated with shifting to non-plastic bags. It is important, however, that we look at implementing this policy through an equity lens, such as potentially including a limited exemption for SNAP shoppers or City initiatives to offer reusable bags and targeted outreach to low-income shoppers.”

While Mayor Cherelle Parker has made “Clean and Green” initiatives part of her early policy priorities, with an expansion of a business corridor cleaning program and a forthcoming “data-driven action plan” to reduce the generation of waste mentioned in her 100-day plan, it’s not yet clear whether she would sign a single-use bag fee bill.

Reached by phone Thursday, spokesperson Joe Grace said it’s too soon to say Parker’s stance on a single-use bag fee bill, as the legislation has not yet been re-introduced.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story indicated that Trash Academy is affiliated with Mural Arts. It is no longer affiliated and is now an independent initiative. 

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