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Pittsburgh City Council introduces proposal to ban single-use plastic bags

Pedestrians carry plastic bags in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke
Pedestrians carry plastic bags in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pittsburgh could soon join a growing list of cities banning single-use plastic bags. City Councilor Erika Strassburger introduced a bill Monday that would mostly prohibit businesses from providing customers with plastic bags to hold their groceries and other products.

The intent of the bill is to reduce plastics pollution and litter. It cites a March study by PennEnvironment that found microplastics — pieces of plastic smaller than a grain of rice — in 53 Pennsylvania waterways. Microplastic contamination was found in all three of Pittsburgh’s rivers.

“This plastic bag ban is really just one step in Pittsburgh’s march to a healthier, more sustainable future,” Strassburger said. “Away from the polluting, throwaway society [that] we have become all too accustomed to.”

The ban would apply to supermarkets, restaurants, food trucks, and department and clothing stores. Farmers markets and delivery services would also need to abide by the ban.

Stores would be able to provide paper bags for a fee of at least 15 cents. Companies could choose to charge a higher rate for paper bags and would collect those fees toward the purchase of paper bag supplies.

Restrictions on single-use plastics isn’t a new movement in Pittsburgh. City Council passed a resolution in May about its intent to introduce a plastic bag ordinance.

Giant Eagle, one of the city’s largest grocery chains, has been experimenting with phasing out plastic bags at its Pittsburgh stores. The chain began a project to remove plastic bags in 2020. But during the early days of the pandemic, most grocers required plastic bags as a health and safety measure, so the project was paused.

Giant Eagle said in a statement that the company supports Strassburger’s bill.

“Giant Eagle shares a vision for a Pittsburgh free of single-use plastic bags and we look forward to helping lead our community on this journey in the coming months,” a spokesperson said. “We applaud Councilperson Strassburger and the City for prioritizing the health of our environment.”

Some bags would be exempt, like bags of prepared food or those used by grocery stores to hold perishable items like meat, fish and vegetables. Dry cleaning bags, packages of garbage bags and prescription drugs would also be exempt.

Strassburger was joined by City Councilors Bobby Wilson and Anthony Coghill at a press conference downtown to announce the bill Monday. PennEnvironment, Pretty Up Beechview and the city’s department of public works also spoke in support of the bill.

Christopher Mitchell, anti-litter specialist for the department of public works, said there are environmental, financial and health costs associated with the litter caused by single-use plastics.

“Litter, illegal dumping, graffiti, overgrown weeds —all of these things can contribute to poor health,” said Mitchell. “People form their own self-worth based on how much trash is in their neighborhood.”

According to Mitchell, plastic bags account for 8% of Pittsburgh’s litter.

“Imagine if we could do something to stop 8% of that trash hitting the ground. I think that’s well worth trying,” he said.

Marya Pittaway, president of Pretty Up Beechview, said volunteer community groups like hers are often carrying the burden of cleaning up plastics and other litter in their neighborhoods.

Pretty Up Beechview hosts monthly cleanups around the Beechview neighborhood. Pittaway said her volunteers often collect piles of plastic bags during cleanups.

“Our volunteers collected roughly 1,900 pounds of trash from the sidewalks, streets and green spaces of Beechview,” this year, she said. “The single-use plastic epidemic is responsible for the bulk of the materials that we collect from our neighborhoods.”

If passed, businesses would have 180 days to phase out plastic bags and inform their customers of the change.

But Strassburger warned that she doesn’t intend to rush the bill through council. She speculated that council will hold a hearing to discuss the measure with experts.

“This is a big step for the city so we want to make sure that every council member gets their questions answered,” she said.

If passed, there would be a campaign to educate residents about the ban and to give businesses enough time to bring their stores into compliance.

Exemptions may also be added for food stamps recipients and stores whose customers are overwhelmingly food stamps recipients, Strassburger said.

“There are a couple of different equity issues,” she said. “The answer might be [to] provide a reusable bag or two to every single resident in the city of Pittsburgh.”

Strassburger also noted that customers would be free to re-use plastic bags if they have a stockpile at home.

The council is set to further discuss the matter next week.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.