Will Pittsburgh's plastic bag ban reduce trash in the environment?
Pittsburgh recently joined a growing number of local governments, including Philadelphia, that have approved a ban on single-use plastic bags at the register at stores.
“I’m thrilled. I am absolutely thrilled,” said Sandy Grote, who was shopping at the Giant Eagle store at the Waterworks shopping center in Pittsburgh with a cartful of groceries in reusable bags.
Grote worries about plastic pollution. “I really do think about it because plastics are going nowhere, and it’s forever. So I really try to avoid plastic when I can,” she said.
Pittsburgh’s ban, which takes effect in a year, will prohibit retailers and restaurants from distributing single-use plastic bags. They can offer paper bags instead, made of at least 40% recycled post-consumer content, and at a charge to customers of at least 10 cents per bag.
Stores may provide them free to people who are on food assistance programs. Some customers at Giant Eagle, like Beda Adams, don’t think stores should be charging anyone for paper bags.
“I don’t think at this time. And even from a year from now, especially with people struggling right now, not everybody, but for some people, every cent counts, and I just don’t think it’s a great idea for them to do that,” Adams said.
Why charge for a bag?
Surfrider Foundation, a California-based non-profit focused on protecting water quality, found that simply banning single-use plastic bags is problematic. In 2019, Surfrider looked at bag bans around the country to find what was working — at that time there were at least 345 cities and towns in 25 states that had adopted bans and/or fees on carryout bags.
It found that where there were laws against single-use plastic bags but alternatives were still free, consumers would just take the free bags, whether that was paper, or thicker plastic bags that are considered reusable.
The fee is necessary for the law to work, to actually get people in the habit of reusing bags, according to Ashleigh Deemer, deputy director of PennEnvironment, which worked with Pittsburgh City Council to create the bag ban.
“Anything that’s single-use is not great, it’s not efficient, it’s using more resources than we need to be using,” Deemer said. “So we want to make sure we’re also keeping our use of paper bags low and really incentivizing people to use reusables.”
If it works, the ban could reduce plastic trash in Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, and also reduce microplastics in the waterways, according to Deemer. Last year, her group released a survey of 50 lakes, rivers, and streams in Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh’s three rivers, Chartiers Creek, and the Youghiogheny River. It found microplastics in every one of them.
“Microplastics are exactly what they sound like, they’re tiny pieces of plastic,” she explained. “Plastic bags get away from us. You see them in tatters, kind of laying in the street. They break down into tiny pieces that are washed into our waterways. And once they’re in our waterways, there’s really no good way to get them out.”
Pittsburgh plans to study the impact of the ban on plastic waste, Deemer said.
Criticisms of plastic bag bans
But there are others, like Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, who say these kinds of bans are just not effective.
He points to a 2019 Pennsylvania study that found only 0.7% of collected litter in the state was single-use plastic bags.
“To suggest that passing this ordinance is going to meaningfully address a litter problem that a city like Pittsburgh is facing is a little bit disingenuous, just by virtue of the small portion of litter items that they account for,” Taylor said.
But a national study of litter throughout the US by Keep America Beautiful found nearly 350 million plastic bags along roadways and waterways, and nearly 95% of them were those single-use grocery store bags.
Taylor also points to research that shows other types of bags, like thicker plastic reusable bags and cotton bags, need to be used numerous times to make up for the environmental costs of their production and transport from overseas, where many of them are made. And he says plastic bags are recyclable at drop-off points at many stores.
“We encourage people to take sort of a bigger look at this. Yes, if you ban plastic bags, you will not see plastic bags, but that doesn’t mean that what’s being done is sustainable,” Taylor said. “If you’re forcing people to use products that are still made from plastic that require a lot more reuse to offset the environmental impact of it, is that sustainable policy? We would say it’s not.”
Researcher Yu-Kai Huang at the University of Georgia studied the impact of bag bans and bag fees in California, Maryland, and Washington, DC. He found similar results to other bag ban studies. “The regulation of grocery bags can potentially increase the sales of plastic trash bags,” said Huang.
When people don’t have free plastic bags to line their kitchen garbage cans, for example, they buy plastic bags, according to Huang.
“It doesn’t mean the policy is not good. It’s just we just want to highlight it: The positive effect may not be as significant as policymakers desire,” he said.
They did find that in stores with significant traffic, ones that generated at least 326 grocery store bags per day, the policy would end up sending less plastic to the landfill.
Local grocer steps up
Giant Eagle started a pilot program at 40 of its locations in January 2020 that eliminated the blue plastic bags at check out. It was cut short by the pandemic, but still had an impact. “In two short months, we prevented approximately 20 million single-use plastic bags from entering landfills and otherwise littering our communities,” said Dan Donovan, company spokesperson.
Removing plastic bags at the register is just the beginning of what Giant Eagle wants to do to reduce plastic in their stores.
“Our ambition is to eliminate single-use plastics from throughout our operations, which includes everything from single-use plastic grocery bags to the use of plastic utensils in our cafe area, single-use plastic bottles, water bottles, beverage bottles, etc., throughout our store,” Donovan said. “If you walk throughout any supermarket with this in mind, you will quickly realize it is an extremely ambitious undertaking.”
The Allegheny Front's Kara Holsopple contributed to this reporting.