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Environmental groups push for Pittsburgh ban on plastic bags

Matt Rourke

Environmental advocacy nonprofit PennEnvironment released a letter Wednesday signed by 100 Pittsburgh businesses and organizations in support of a plastic bag ban, an ordinance expected to come before City Council later this fall.

“We estimate this policy has the potential to prevent 108 million plastic bags from entering our waste stream in our environment each year,” said Ashleigh Deemer, deputy director of PennEnvironment. “These signers represent businesses, community organizations, and nonprofits, and every Pittsburgh City Council district.”

The letter is part of Penn Environment’s broader campaign to pass a plastic bag ordinance in Pittsburgh, an effort the organization successfully undertook in Philadelphia, where a plastic bag ban took effect July 1.

The Pittsburgh ordinance has been under discussion for several years. It was delayed by a 2019 Pennsylvania legislature ban on municipal plastic bag ordinances, provoking a lawsuit led by Philadelphia and other municipalities. Then in May, in anticipation of the endof the ban on plastic bag bans, Pittsburgh City Council passed a resolution to introduce a plastic bag ordinance.

Though most of the letter’s 100 signatories are small businesses and organizations, some larger retailers are preparing for a potential ban. Whole Foods does not use plastic bags—and in 2019, Giant Eagle announced plans to phase out single-use plastic bags by 2025.

In March, PennEnvironment released the results of a survey showing microplastics were found in every Pennsylvania waterway tested. Film microplastics, which are fragments from plastics bags, were found in all three of Pittsburgh’s rivers, including the Allegheny River, from which Pittsburgh draws its drinking water.

“It’s estimated that people consume about a credit card’s worth of plastic each week,” Deemer said. “Once microplastics are in our environment and in our water, there’s really no effective way to remove them. So the best thing that we can do is stop plastic pollution at the source and plastic bags are one source of microplastics.”

Plastic bag bans in several hundred other cities have had mixed results. In particular, early-adopting cities like Austin and Chicago found that banning only thin plastic bags pushed large retailers in particular to offer customers thicker-gauge plastic bags touted as reusable, resulting in higher plastic use than before the bans. Other retailers offered paper bags, which come with environmental impacts of their own.

Deemer said PennEnvironment has been working with City Councilor Erika Strassburger’s office to make policy recommendations as they draft the ordinance, to help avoid some of the unintended consequences experienced in other cities.

“In terms of making sure that this doesn't create a bigger plastic problem and encourage thicker plastic bags, it's all in the definition that's in the bill,” Deemer said. “We want to make sure that the definition of plastic bag in this bill is just ‘blown-film extrusion.’ It's the way that the plastic bags are made, no matter the thickness of the plastic, so that we're not trading thin plastic for thick plastic.”

Deemer said they are also advocating for the ordinance to define acceptable paper bags as ones made of post-consumer recycled paper. Both the “blown-film extrusion” language and the precision of post-consumer recycled paper bags are part of the model ordinance PennEnvironment developed for Pennsylvania municipalities considering plastic bag ordinances.

It is not clear what provisions will be included in the Pittsburgh ordinance. In July, in an interview on WESA’s the Confluence, Strassburger said the Pittsburgh ordinance may include both a ban on plastic bags and a fee on paper bags. This strategy is among the best practices recommended by the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit ocean protection organization.

In a release, Strassburger said she plans to introduce the plastic bag ordinance this fall.