State lawmakers block plastic bag bans, like Philadelphia’s, in move one representative calls ‘huge abuse of power’

Plastic trash is deposited at the high tide line at Monmouth Beach, New Jersey. A new local law prohibiting merchants from using plastic straws, styrofoam food containers, and plastic bags is a small step in the right direction, supporters say. (Emma Lee / WHYY)

Plastic trash is deposited at the high tide line at Monmouth Beach, New Jersey. A new local law prohibiting merchants from using plastic straws, styrofoam food containers, and plastic bags is a small step in the right direction, supporters say. (Emma Lee / WHYY)

This story originally appeared on StateImpact Pennsylvania.

After several years of failed attempts to pass free-standing legislation blocking municipal plastic bag bans, Pennsylvania lawmakers used a budget-related bill to extend a current moratorium on such bans for at least a year, with little debate and no public hearings.

The new provision, inserted into the fiscal code (HB1083) just hours before a full vote, is tucked between parts of an amendment on how to spend state gambling proceeds. It prohibits municipalities from enacting any fees or restrictions on all single-use plastics such as bags, utensils or styrofoam containers.

If approved, it would effectively delay implementation of any current plastic bag bans such as those passed in Philadelphia, West Chester and Narberth, at least until July 1, 2021, or six months after Gov. Tom Wolf lifts his COVID-19 state of emergency.

State lawmakers tried to permanently ban plastic bag bans in 2017, but Wolf vetoed the bill, citing the Environmental Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.

During last year’s budget process, Senate majority leader Jake Corman (R-Centre County), spearheaded a similar provision, which prohibited plastic bag bans for a year and authorized studies to assess the economic impact of single-use plastics bans. Corman’s district includes a plastic bag factory, Hilex Poly, a division of Novolex, which employs about 160 people. It’s one of country’s largest manufacturer of plastics products.

On Thursday, State Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware County) attempted to remove the language from the fiscal code.

“I think this is a huge abuse of power,” Vitali told StateImpact Pennsylvania. “What it is, is one powerful politician preventing an entire state from enacting good environmental policy to protect a very narrow interest in his district. It’s really politics at its worst in my view.”

Jennifer Kocher, a spokesperson for Corman, said he was not responsible for this year’s provision but would not say who inserted the language. Kocher pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to further delay plastic bag bans.

“Senator Corman has indicated that now is not the time to be banning plastic bags made from recycled materials when grocery stores have actually banned shoppers from bringing reusable bags into the stores due to concerns over spreading the virus,” she said.

On Earth Day, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced that the city would delay enforcement of its plastic bag ban until April 2021, citing the COVID-19 pandemic and wanting to make sure businesses did not have to incur more costs.

In the limited 15 minutes of debate over the issue in the House Thursday night, Vitali urged his colleagues to consider the damage done by plastics pollution.

“Worldwide shoppers use 500 billion, billion with a ‘b’, single-use plastic bags annually,” Vitali said. “It’s estimated by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Think about that. More plastic in the ocean than fish.”

Much of that plastic trash gets broken down into tiny pieces called micro plastics, which are then released up into the atmosphere, according to a recent study.

State Rep. John Hershey (R-Juniata County) supported the measure, saying hundreds of family’s livelihoods are tied to the Novolex plant in Milesburg.

“This issue also has COVID-19 import,” Hershey said. “Philadelphia, right here in the Commonwealth, has delayed implementation of a plastic bag tax because plastic bags have been proven to carry COVID 19 virus.”

The scientific research surrounding whether plastic bags can spread the virus is ongoing, and so far has not “proven” anything. The CDC says the main way the virus spreads is through person-to-person contact, while surfaces may carry risks.

Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla, who championed Philadelphia’s plastic bag ban, says it’s safer for everyone to bring their own bag.

“I’d rather bring my own bag and pack my own bag,” he said.

Squilla says the move is illegal based on the “single subject rule,” which prevents lawmakers from inserting provisions that veer away from the titled subject of the bill. He says he’s had discussions with the Philadelphia Law Department on challenging the state’s pre-emption of the plastic bag bans.

“If they’re going to continue to do this, we need to sue to prove a point that what they’re doing is not legal,” Squilla said.

PennEnvironment director David Masur agrees that lawmakers have continually gotten away with inserting items into the fiscal code that they could not get through as stand alone bills.

“It’s wildly anti-democratic,” Masur said. “The fact that you can introduce a bill and move it in 90 minutes through the legislative process is certainly not the way to do the people’s business. For cities like Philadelphia that are trying to tackle plastics pollution, it means the city won’t be able to do it on their timeline. And if you were a city or town in Pennsylvania that were thinking about plastics legislation, this certainly has a chilling effect.”

The Governor’s office did not return a request for comment.

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