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Pittsburgh retailers, grocers bid farewell to plastic bags this weekend

Zoe Fuller
90.5 WESA

The long-anticipated ban on single-use plastic bags will take effect Saturday in Pittsburgh. No longer will stores be allowed to hand out free plastic bags at the cash register, although fines to enforce the ban won’t take effect until January.

But the city expects many stores to begin encouraging their customers to bring reusable shopping bags — rather than pay a 10-cent fee for each paper bag distributed at the register.

Some stores, like Pennsylvania Macaroni Company in the Strip District, are still grappling with how to help customers, who will be affected most by the changes.

“My entire life, we’ve used the same bag,” said owner David Sunseri, whose family has owned the grocery store since 1902. “Penn Mac bags are almost famous.”

Now Penn Mac and other stores will have to switch to paper bags, which Sunseri said he has found could cost considerably more than plastic. He’s not against reducing plastic, but he said selling paper bags could be an “inconvenience” to his customers. He’s also unsure how paper bags will stand up to larger, bulk grocery items his customers tend to buy.

“People walk a long way to shop here,” Sunseri said, noting the limited parking in the Strip District. “If you pick that bag up … [or] move incorrectly … the can of olive oil hits the concrete.”

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Other retailers say they’ve already made the switch to paper.

That includes Littles Shoes in Squirrel Hill. Owner Justin Sigal said his store switched to paper two years ago when the city first began weighing how to cut down on single-use plastics.

“We had no problem switching over to the paper bag, which has been fine and been seamless,” Sigal said. “We’ve always had a sustainable option for people that were interested.”

During that time, Littles Shoes absorbed the cost of the paper bags as part of doing business. Sigal said he doesn’t want to change that now that the city has ordered a 10-cent fee per bag.

“To me, it would be insulting to ask for another 10 cents,” he said. “Our shoes are not cheap.”

Sigal argues that his store is in a different position than grocers or some other retailers. While customers are likely to carry a reusable bag or two to the grocery store, Sigal’s customers would have to have twice as many to carry a haul of shoes.

“You're getting to three or four or five bags pretty quick, depending on the size of the boxes,” he said. “People don't generally roll around with that many bags.”

People who make purchases using an EBT card, such as for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, don't have to pay 10 cents for their paper bags. But the paper bag fee is supposed to encourage other shoppers to remember their reusable bags, according to City Councilor Erika Strassburger, who spearheaded the ban.

She said the goal isn’t only to switch to paper bags, which have their own negative environmental impact.

“The 10-cent fee, we've understood from learning from other cities and states, is just enough to sort of nudge people away from paper,” she said. “And to start bringing their own… bag, box or backpack.”

A sign posted at Trader Joe's reading "Beginning October 14, paper bags will be available for 10 cents each due to a City of Pittsburgh mandate."
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
A sign posted at Trader Joe's in Pittsburgh.

She added that the fee also will remind customers that there’s no such thing as a “free” bag.

“If people continue to feel like the bag that they’re getting is free, even though it’s not, it’s not going to change behavior and culture in the way that we seek to do,” she said. “We’re working toward zero waste.”

While the fee could help some smaller businesses offset the cost of buying paper bags, larger chains have pledged to put the fee to other uses.

Giant Eagle, which owns about one-fifth of the grocery market share in the Pittsburgh region, pledged earlier this week to donate the money it raises from paper bag fees to Pittsburgh-area environmental organizations. The company said it would give the money to groups that plant trees, clean waterways and invest in city park systems.

Giant Eagle has been a vocal supporter of the city’s ban on plastic bags. The supermarket chain already complies with similar bans in other municipalities: A spokesperson told WESA last month that early communication with customers about the change is key. The company said it plans to eliminate all single-use plastics in two years.

The metro area’s largest grocery chain, Walmart, does not have any stores within city limits. But a spokesperson said nine locations in Allegheny County will begin using paper bags for deliveries within Pittsburgh. At checkout, customers who order deliveries from Walmart will have the option to select if they do or don't want paper bags; if they do, they will be charged per bag.

“Walmart delivery will continue to be a convenient, affordable option for customers in the city of Pittsburgh,” said Market Manager Don Henry. “ and the Walmart app will make it easy to order groceries and more.”

Pittsburgh’s effort to enact a bag ban has been a long time coming. City leaders say the ban will promote the use of more sustainable materials while reducing waste and litter. Plastic bags have also been a headache for Pittsburgh’s recycling stream: They often get tangled in recycling processing equipment. The city has also moved away from using plastic bags for curbside recycling in recent years.

A study by the University of Pittsburgh found that Philadelphia — where a similar ban went into effect in 2021 — eliminated more than 200 million plastic bags from that city in just one year.

Pittsburgh planned to start the single-use plastic bag ban in 2021 but delayed it in favor of ironing out the city ordinance that set the rules. The city passed a bill to ban the bags in 2022 with a start date scheduled for earlier this year. But officials pushed back the ban once more in order to give stores more time to prepare.

A sign in Rite Aid detailing Pittsburgh's plastic bag ban, which starts on Oct. 14, 2023.
Kate Giammarise
90.5 WESA

While just about every store will be impacted by the ban, dry cleaners and pharmacies are excluded. Pharmacies won't be able to provide plastic bags for non-pharmaceutical products, though. Stores also may continue to use plastic bags in the produce section for fruits and vegetables, as well as for unpackaged meats and fish, nuts, bakery goods and flowers.

Before Pittsburgh could roll out the ban, the city needed to hire someone to enforce it — which is where Tobias Raether comes in. Raether became Pittsburgh’s environmental enforcement manager in June. Since he joined the city, he’s been meeting with retailers about the plastic bag ban and preparing the city to implement it.

One change that’s come about as a result of those conversations is a delay in penalties designed to enforce the ban: Those won’t come until Jan. 1, 2024. Raether said he's focused on making sure business owners know how to comply with the rules and finding supportive resources wherever possible. He said that work will continue even after the city starts giving out warnings and fines.

“We want even that enforcement stage of this to still include education [and] support,” he said, adding that the city is “intending to get businesses all the information they need to be in compliance with this.”

“Our goal isn't to be fining people as much as possible,” Raether said.

After January 1, stores that don't adhere to the ban will receive a warning and information about how to comply. The city can issue $100 fines for a second infraction and up to $250 for a third infraction and any infractions after that.

Ann Gilligan, who owns Mayfly Market & Deli on the North Side, is “thrilled” that the city is discouraging plastic consumption with the ban. During the five years she’s been in business, she’s provided paper bags or encouraged customers to bring reusable bags. She estimated that she’s spent $15,000 on paper bags during that time, so she’s looking forward to having customers offset some of that cost. She's also worried about how they might react.

“I’m a little nervous that we’ll have some unhappy customers when that charge conversation comes up,” she said.

But she’s confident that after an adjustment period for her customers and staff, things will settle into a new normal. She compared it to previous requirements for her customers to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You had to keep reminding customers, ‘Please put on a mask,’” she said. “Some would be annoyed, and some would just do it. ... I think it's going to be very similar.”

Strassburger agreed with Gilligan, predicting that Pittsburgh shoppers and retailers will adjust just like those in other municipalities that have implemented bag bans. She said it will take “people getting a little uncomfortable with changing their habits and then getting comfortable again after getting into a new habit.”

Even store owners with more concerns about the ban’s rollout say they’ll manage the changes.

“My family business has been in business for 121 years,” Sunseri said about Penn Mac. “You deal with what comes at you. And this bag thing is coming at us.”

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.