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Philly Plans To — Slowly — Start Implementing Its Long-Delayed Plastic Bag Ban Next Month

Matt Rourke

Philly’s long-delayed ban on single-use plastic bags will begin to take effect at the start of July.

City Council first passed the ban in late 2019, requiring nearly all businesses — including grocery and convenience stores, gas stations, department and clothing stores, restaurants, food trucks, and farmers’ markets — to stop using plastic bags and any paper bags that don’t use at least 40% recycled material.

In a statement, Mayor Jim Kenney noted that the coronavirus pandemic delayed implementation of the ban, but said the city is now turning its attention more fully to its environmental goals.

“While the ban on single-use plastic bags will go into effect later than we originally anticipated, we believe this timeline will help increase compliance,” he said. “By building out an extended education and warning period, the City will be better able to ensure widespread awareness of the law to our diverse business owners and to residents and consumers.”

That education period means the ban won’t be fully implemented and enforced until April 2022, according to the timeline the city laid out this week.

Starting next month, Philly will start asking businesses to hang signs letting customers know about the bag ban — which they can download from the city’s website — and come Aug. 1, those signs will be required. The actual prohibition of plastic bags won’t begin until Oct. 1.

Between October and April 2022, the prohibition won’t come with real consequences. During that period, the city will only issue warnings to businesses not in compliance. After April 1, however, businesses that keep using plastic bags could be fined by the city — the minimum penalty will be $75, and if a business repeatedly violates the new law, the city may take them to court and ask for additional penalties.

Plastic bag bans have been a contentious political issue in recent years in Pennsylvania. After repeatedly rejecting efforts to create a statewide ban, the GOP-controlled legislature has, for the last two years, slipped language into state budgets to temporarily stop municipalities from creating and enforcing their own bag bans.

Lawmakers justified their most recent prohibitions of the ban by first saying the issue should be studied, then arguing it was inappropriate to implement it during a pandemic. The most recent legislative intervention aimed to keep the ban from taking effect until at least July 1.

Philadelphia and several other municipalities sued, arguing the ban on bans was unconstitutional because, among other things, its passage violated procedural rules. However, Philly’s current timeline doesn’t run afoul of the state law, unless the legislature extends its intervention again.

A few types of plastic bags are exempt from the ban.

Packaged plastic garbage bags are still allowed, as are dry cleaner bags, and bags used to deliver perishable bulk items like meat, fish, vegetables, and plants to retailers.

When they passed the plastic bag ban in 2019, Philly City Council members cited the volume of bags the city uses — an estimated 1 billion per year — and the role they play in littering streets. The city also estimates it has wasted about 10,000 hours at recycling facilities retrieving bags, which are not recyclable but often end up mixed with recyclables, untangled from equipment.