Everything You Need to Know About Philadelphia’s Plastic Bag Ban

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Get ready for your soon to be plastic bag free future.


Target is preparing for the upcoming plastic bag ban in Philadelphia. Staff photo.

With everything going on in the world, you could be forgiven for not following the rollout of the plastic bag ban in Philadelphia closely. Hell, that’s not even the most important trash-related story right now. This honor would go to the inability of the street service to pick up the garbage in time. Or maybe the street department is giving people tickets for taking their trash cans out to the sidewalk after garbage day, after failing to empty said trash cans on garbage day. Or just maybe it is the expansion of street sweeping.

But plastic bags are a big deal! According to the city, we collectively review more than one billion single-use bags each year, the majority of which are plastic. They often seem to end up in curbside recycling – wishful thinking, ignorance or perhaps deep guilt on the part of potential recyclers – which clogs the sophisticated machinery of the recycling plant. (Or at least that’s what happens when Philly actively recycles — which isn’t always obvious.) And that’s to say nothing of the environmental impact of the bags that just end up being thrown away.

Thankfully, Philadelphia’s billion bag count is expected to drop soon thanks to the new ban. But when, exactly?

Excellent question. Here’s everything you need to know about the plastic bag ban.

When was this law passed?

It took about the time it takes for a plastic bag to degrade for Philadelphia’s plastic bag ban bill to pass. The first one a failed effort came in 2007. Two years later, the Council nearly passed a bill that would have required businesses to charge for all bags, plastic or otherwise. (At the time, then-City Councilman Jim Kenney backed the bill, saying the city’s plastic bag policy needed to “catch up with the rest of the world.”) But ultimately this bill died after lobby groups rejected the legislation. Mark Squilla tried again a few years later, also without success.

So you can see why conservationists were thrilled when a bill – which didn’t charge a fee, but rather banned all single-use plastic bags – was finally passed in late 2019. Of course, you know what happened next. With many businesses closed at all due to the pandemic and others struggling to stay afloat, the Kenney administration pushed back implementation of the law until Jan. 1, 2021, and then once again until Jan. July, 1st.

So, is the ban in effect now? Why do I still see plastic bags everywhere?

You always see bags everywhere because the ban actually is not in effect. A very slow rollout is underway, to give retailers ample time to deplete their existing bag inventory while providing an education period for businesses and consumers.

Here’s the current schedule: From August, businesses will be required to post signs mentioning the upcoming ban. From October, the ban will be technically be in force. But it won’t really be enforced until April 2022. Fines for noncompliance start at $75, and eventually the city can sue companies and seek higher penalties if they refuse to line up. April 2022 seems a long way off, but at least we’re now starting the process with signage. No baby!

What is actually prohibited?

Everyone calls this bill the plastic bag ban, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. Some plastic bags actually are allowed, while some paper bags are not.

Let’s review: paper bags are safe as long as they are not made from ancient trees and use at least 40% recycled materials. The bags must also mention that they themselves are recyclable.

Bags made of nylon, polyester, cloth and other fabrics are also perfectly acceptable. All Disposable plastic bags are prohibited. But if a plastic bag is more than two and a half millimeters thick and specifically designed for multiple use, it is allowed.

And don’t worry about your dry cleaning or waste: plastic bags are still acceptable for these as well as for packing certain food items, such as meat or fish.

How effective are plastic bag bans, anyway?

Currently, eight states and many other cities have passed plastic bag bans, which means that policy performance can be gauged elsewhere. An NPR article from two years ago noted that California cities in which plastic bags had been eliminated had a predictable decrease in plastic bag litter. But at the same time, plastic consumption garbage bags (mostly of the smaller four-gallon variety), which are made of even more environmentally harmful thick plastic, have soared. The consumption of paper bags has also increased, and although these bags are much more easily recycled, the trade-off is that it takes a lot more energy and more greenhouse gases to produce these paper bags.

This is part of the reason why conservationists prefer policies that include fees for all single-use bags, to provide another push towards reusable bags. Philly’s law has no fee element, and it remains to be seen how many businesses will end up simply replacing plastic with paper.

Of course, it looks like a mixed bag.

What the hell is it about the state legislature banning bag bans?

A quick history lesson: In 2017, Republicans in Harrisburg passed a bill that would have banned bag bans locally. Governor Tom Wolf vetoed the bill. But since we’re talking about Republicans in Harrisburg, that didn’t stop them. Two years later, they slipped a bag ban into a budget bill that ended up being signed.

The city of Philadelphia sued the state for the attempted banning bans. Luckily for banner bags in Philadelphia, that budget law has now expired, and this year’s budget contains no such ban. So it looks like we’re in the clear. At least for now.

Have companies really changed the way they operate?

What we really wanted to know is this: What does Wawa, home to the city’s most popular and famous branded plastic bag, do about all of this?

A spokesperson told us, “We are offering customers a low-cost 25-cent reusable bag that they can use both in Wawa and for other shopping or personal needs, while encouraging bag abandonment. plastic whenever possible.

A 25-cent reusable Wawa bag? It certainly sounded exciting, so I took a trip to Wawa’s flagship store at 6th and Chestnut. The were reusable tote bags hanging behind cash registers. Goal! When I asked for one, however, I learned that they cost a dollar fifty. The cashier had no idea what I was talking about when I asked for one of the new 25 cent bags. But I got a hot tip: Apparently Target was offering reusable bins – for free!

Left: Wawa disposable bag. Right: Wawa reusable bag.

So I walked up Chestnut Street – Wawa single-use plastic bag in hand – and headed for Target. Another Wawa plastic bag blew down the street. On my pilgrimage, I couldn’t find a single store with signs mentioning the upcoming bag ban.

I finally arrived at Target, in front of a sign proclaiming, “This store is now bagless.” An auspicious sign!

When I got to checkout, however, there were no reusable bins. Apparently they were exhausted. There was, however, a replacement: a gigantic pile of plastic bags.

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