Philly Council committee moves plastic bag ban to final vote, but kills 15-cent fee

Philadelphia took one step closer to banning single-use bags Tuesday but axed a 15-cent fee on thicker plastic and recyclable paper bags.

Residents from the Philadelphian, a condominium building across from the Philadelphia Art Museum, support the ban on plastic bags because they interfere with recycling. (Catalina Jaramillo/WHYY)

Residents from the Philadelphian, a condominium building across from the Philadelphia Art Museum, support the ban on plastic bags because they interfere with recycling. (Catalina Jaramillo/WHYY)

A bill to ban single-use bags and cut down on pollution in Philadelphia streets moved out of committee to a final vote by the full City Council on Tuesday at the cost of losing one of its parts.

The original bill, introduced in June by Councilmember Mark Squilla, prohibited businesses from giving out lightweight single-use plastic bags and non-recyclable paper bags. 

It also allowed retailers to charge a 15-cent fee for thicker plastic and recyclable paper bags at checkout. That fee was axed by the Council Committee on Licenses and Inspections during Tuesday’s hearing.

The committee’s chair, Councilmember María Quiñones-Sánchez, has opposed the bill, arguing the fee would affect the poorest Philadelphians.

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“I have made it very clear to this bill sponsor that as a co-chairing head of the Poverty Committee, I’m against any regressive tax and any fees to poor people, particularly in food deserts,” Quiñones-Sánchez said in the opening discussions.

Squilla started the hearing with an amendment that brought the fee down to 10 cents but ended the session with no fee at all.

“We don’t always get everything we want, including me today,” Squilla said. “In order to move bills forward, some compromises had to be made.”

Quiñones-Sánchez approved the amendment and the bill and said a ban without a fee still gets the city ahead from where it is.

But environmental advocates argue adding a tax to a ban — what’s called a “hybrid model” — is more effective in reducing plastic pollution because it incentivizes consumers to bring a reusable bag with them to the store, sparing them the fee.

“No fee is a mistake,” Maurice Sampson, the Eastern Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action. “If you can get a bag easily, you’re not going to look for a reusable bag.”

According to the Clean Air Council, Philadelphians receive about one billion plastic bags per year, which take about 500 years to decompose. Although some argue residents recycle them to put trash or other items in, the city says only 1% of those bags are actually reused and usually end up on the streets. Plastic bags are the fifth most-littered item in the city, according to the city’s 2018 litter index.

Plastic bags are not recyclable curbside, and usually end up in landfills or floating into local waterways into the ocean where whales, turtles, and other marine life become tangled in them. In 2017, city crews removed 67 tons of litter from the stormwater system and 12 tons of trash from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, over 15% of which was plastic bags.

“We get more plastic bags flying all over our neighborhoods in Kensington and Fairhill than actual birds,” said Charito Morales, a community organizer at the Providence Center in Kensington.

Morales, a Quiñones-Sánchez constituent, said a fee wouldn’t really affect poor communities if the city and other organizations provide training, resources, or free reusable bags. As an example, she said, residents at the Providence Center are making their own bags together with Mural Art’s program Trash Academy and are “ready for a change.”

“Poor people also care about the environment,” said Ron Whyte, a member from the Trash Academy, who said he was raised in poverty and testified in favor of the hybrid bill.

Ron Whyte, from Mural Arts’ Trash Academy program, dressed in plastic bags to testify at City Council’s hearing on a proposed ban on single-use plastic bags. (Catalina Jaramillo/WHYY)

Asked by Squilla which bills are more effective in reducing single-use plastics, Nic Esposito, director of the city’s Zero Litter Cabinet, said it has been an evolving conversation. Some towns started with fees, then added bans, and now the majority of towns and major cities are moving to the ban plus a fee, he said.

Squilla’s bill is the latest of four attempts in 12 years to ban plastic bags in Philadelphia. 

In January, the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which represents the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling sector, hired a lobbying firm in Philadelphia, in addition to Harrisburg and New Jersey, “to educate elected officials,” Matt Seaholm, the group’s executive director, told PlanPhilly in March. The group argued the tax would affect low-income communities by making groceries more expensive. 

Given the long and complicated road taken by the city to get to this point, Esposito said, a ban without a fee would still be a good first step to reach Philadelphia’s zero waste goals by 2035.

“Even with the amendment taking the fee on paper and reusable bags out, we feel that this will be an effective law that takes into consideration the needs of all Philadelphians to reduce plastic waste and litter in Philadelphia,” Esposito wrote in an email. 

Stephanie Wein, from the nonprofit PennEnvironment, which worked with Squilla’s office on crafting the legislation, agreed.

“We are happy that Council has taken this really big step to move beyond plastic bags. Obviously nothing you use for 15 minutes should pollute for thousands of years,” Wein said. “But we have seen in cities that have the ban-fee hybrid — that’s where you really see a change in consumer behavior. So it’s our hope that eventually that be part of the mix.”

Squilla said his office will keep working on the legislation. As amended, the ban would apply to supermarkets, convenience stores, service stations and dollar stores, clothing and department stores, restaurants and delivery services, food trucks, and farmers’ markets.

 The ban would include plastic bags used for circulars and newspapers, but would not prohibit dog poop bags or any other bag that can be bought in a store, bags used inside retail stores to package items such as fruits or meats, or dry cleaning bags.

In June, just days after Squilla introduced his bill in City Council, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill that put a one-year ban on new single-use plastic regulation or taxes. 

With the Committee on Licenses and Inspections approval, the bill will now pass to a full City Council vote, which could happen as soon as next Thursday. If passed, the bill would be enacted in July 2020, when the state ban on plastic bag bans has expired.

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