Philly will start enforcing plastic bag ban next year. Many stores aren’t ready

Pedestrians carry plastic bags in Philadelphia

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

You forgot your tote bag again, didn’t you?

Well, you might be in luck if you’re shopping at one of the businesses or restaurants in Philly that are still giving out plastic bags — despite the ban that went into effect this fall.

The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections has issued 120 warnings to 84 businesses believed to be out of line based on complaints residents lodged through the city’s 311 system, said city spokesperson Karen Guss. Giving out single-use plastic bags is currently illegal in the city, but penalties don’t start until April 1.

“It’s not ‘am I going to get in trouble,’” Guss said. “We hope our businesses aren’t like 5-year-olds, but some of them do seem to be kind of gaming the system.”

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A survey of more than 50 businesses by the advocacy group PennEnvironment found over half were in violation of the ban.

The city uses an estimated 1 billion plastic bags per year, and they litter streets and waterways. They also clog up recycling facilities, with city officials estimating they’ve wasted thousands of hours untangling plastic bags from recycling equipment.

But city officials are optimistic plastic bags could disappear from Philly businesses by the April deadline. Guss said the city plans to push another round of communications out to businesses before the enforcement date.

“We will have to respond to the situation on the ground as it exists in April,” Guss said. “We’re really hopeful that noncompliance will be the exception, not the rule.”

Some customers cling to plastic bags, others want paper

One business not yet in full compliance is Donna’s Convenience Store on Oregon Avenue in South Philly. But it’s not because management doesn’t believe in the ban. In fact, they see it as good for the environment.

“What we even suggest is this should be nationwide or whole statewide, not only citywide,” said Ronnie Sindhi, manager at Donna’s.

Sindhi encourages customers to buy a reusable plastic tote bag the store sells for $1.50. But he’ll give single-use plastic bags to customers — often longtime customers or ones from outside the city — who specifically ask for them.

“We got a regular customer — we’ve been doing service almost 10 years now in this store — they understand our side, but some of them, they want [plastic] bags. So we have to give them bags,” he said.

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Sindhi is well aware of the April 1 deadline to comply with the ban in order to avoid penalties — and plans to be giving out paper bags by then. The store may end up charging customers a few cents for them, based on how much they cost to source.

“Let’s see how we getting it, yes,” Sindhi said. “But if we have, you know, regular customers, we will try to get them used to the reusable bags.”

Denise Dougherty of South Philly has mixed feelings about the ban. She brought an old plastic bag — so much for “single-use” — to shop on East Passyunk Avenue Thursday.

“I’ve had the horrible experience of having all my belongings, all my purchases all over the ground because of the paper bags from CVS,” she said. “Then I’ve had the experience where I didn’t bring bags and then had to pay so much extra for each bag after I went grocery shopping. So it was an extra $3 on my bill, which groceries are so high as it is.”

Still, Dougherty sees the reasoning behind the ban.

“I hate the idea that our planet is covered in plastic bags,” she said. “But at the same time, there has to be an alternative, maybe even the stores giving you the [paper] bags.”

Michael Mellon, a resident of Point Breeze, said his family started bringing their own reusable bags to stores before the plastic bag ban, and have not had a hard time adjusting. He carried a purchase out of Primal Supply Meats on East Passyunk in a paper bag Thursday.

“I would prefer paper over plastic,” he said. “I think the ban’s good.”

Are thicker plastic bags allowed?

City officials are aware of some retailers switching to slightly thicker plastic bags and claiming they’re allowed under the plastic bag ban, Guss, the city spokesperson, said.

“They’re still problematic for our recycling systems, and they’re still not good for the environment,” she said. “We’re looking to create behavior change here, not a thicker plastic bag.”

The ban does allow plastic bags that are not created through a blown film extrusion process, are thicker than 2.25 mils, and are specifically designed for multiple reuses. Other exceptions to the ban include plastic dry cleaner bags, newspaper bags, packages of multiple plastic bags (like garbage bags or dog poop bags), and plastic bags used inside a grocery store for produce, meat, or baked goods.

But the thicker plastic bags being given away at the point of sale?

“Those are not permissible,” Guss said.

The city wants to see the ordinance amended to clarify this.

Councilmember Mark Squilla, who sponsored the original ban, has introduced a bill that would remove the 2.5 mils exemption from the ban’s definition of single-use plastic bags. The bill is currently in committee, and City Council is on winter break.

Delaware Gov. John Carney signed a bill closing a similar thickness loophole in that state’s plastic bag ban in September.

A pedestrian carries a plastic bag in Philadelphia
A pedestrian carries a plastic bag in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

How to report a business that’s violating the ban

If you notice a business still offering single-use plastic bags and you’d like city officials to know about it, you can enter a complaint through the city’s 311 system, by phone, or online.

“We think it’s important for businesses to understand that the public actually cares about this,” Guss said. “If the public is going to the trouble of making a complaint, it’s because the public is aware of the problems that plastic bags cause and wants to see it come to an end.”

And If you don’t feel like reporting your favorite corner store to the city, try telling the manager that you’d like a paper bag option, buy one of their reusable bags, or just make sure to bring your own.

But if you do dial 311, say you’re calling to report a business that is using plastic bags and be prepared to provide the exact street address of the business. The date you visited the business is also requested.

If you enter your complaint online, use the page specifically devoted to plastic bag ban tips. You’ll need to enter the business name and address (don’t worry, there’s an interactive map to help you), and can also add a description and a photo.

Make sure not to report any plastic bags that are exempt from the ban.

City inspectors are not verifying the legitimacy of the complaints, Guss said, but are simply notifying businesses of the complaint, telling them that giving out single-use plastic bags is unlawful and after April 1, will result in penalties.

Guss said the city seems to be seeing good results: Most of the businesses that officials send warnings to do not trigger additional complaints.

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