Proposal would ban single-use plastic bags at Pittsburgh stores in most cases

Single-use plastic bags may be a thing of the past in Pittsburgh, if a proposal to ban them earns City Council’s approval.

The legislation, introduced by Councilwoman Erika Strassburger on Monday, would ban plastic bags in most instances. Rather than using the standard plastic grocery bags, shoppers would need to bring their own reusable bags or, if they don’t have one, retailers would instead have to offer a recyclable paper bag for a fee of at least 15 cents, according to the proposed legislation.

The fee would be listed as a separate charge on the customer’s receipt, Strassburger said.

There would be exceptions for produce bags, meat packaging, pharmacy bags or bags used to wrap flowers or similar items. Garbage bags and pet waste bags would also be exempt.

The ban could eliminate more than 108 million plastic bags annually, according to the legislation.

“This is going to be something that makes an incredible impact for the future,” Strassburger said, touting how the measure ties in with the city’s climate action plan and zero waste goals.

Americans use 100 billion plastic bags annually, according to the legislation. That requires 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture. A single-use plastic bag can take about 500 years to decompose.

The legislation cites a PennEnvironment study that showed microplastics — harmful, potentially carcinogenic materials from decomposing plastic bags — were present in 100% of tested waterways throughout the commonwealth, including several in the Pittsburgh region.

“Every local waterway that we love has some microplastic contamination already,” said Ashleigh Deemer, deputy director of Penn Environment, explaining that plastic bags are a main factor in that contamination. “They find their ways into our environment and our waterways.”

Those microplastics also contaminate drinking water, Deemer said. Experts estimate that an average person could consume an amount of plastic roughly the equivalent to the size of a credit card every week, she said.

Plastic bags also end up as litter that sits in the city’s streets, parks and rivers, causing an eyesore and a threat to wildlife, Strassburger said.

“Outside of cigarette butts — which make up a full one-third of litter picked up — plastic bags make up 8% of litter out there,” said Christopher Mitchell, an anti-litter specialist in the city’s Department of Public Works.

Marya Pittaway of Pretty Up Beechview said she, along with her team of volunteers, picked up more than 1,900 pounds of litter in their neighborhood.

“It’s a scourge,” she said of plastic bags.

If passed, the measure would go into effect 180 days after the legislation is approved. That gives businesses and residents time to learn about the new rule, purchase the necessary bags and prepare for the change, Strassburger said.

“This bill may not be easy for some,” Councilman Bobby Wilson, a co-sponsor on the bill, said. “I’m guilty of going to the store and using plastic bags.”

Nonetheless, he said, it’s an important step for the city to meet its climate goals.

Retail establishments would be required to post “conspicuous signage” informing customers of the new policy, beginning 90 days after the legislation’s effective date and lasting for six months.

Strassburger said the measure would likely be held in committee for several weeks to give council members time to hammer out specifics of the bill and ensure they are all comfortable with the measure.

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

One particular concern, Strassburger said, is how to ensure the policy doesn’t cause unintended hardships for low-income residents, who would be forced to either spend money on reusable bags or face fees for paper bags every time they go shopping.

One potential solution, she said, would be to offer an exemption for low-income residents or those using SNAP.

But, she said, that may not be fair for store owners, because they wouldn’t be able to recoup the additional cost of paper bags. Some stores, she noted, may encounter disproportionately more people who would qualify for the exemption than others.

“The answer might be (to) provide a reusable bag or two to every single resident in the city of Pittsburgh,” Strassburger said.

They are “still working out” a penalty structure for stores that don’t comply. People would be able to report noncompliance, she said, and the process would likely begin with a warning for stores that are still using plastic bags.

“We don’t want to penalize businesses. We don’t want to penalize people,” she said. “We want this to be an effort that people can be proud of.”

Councilman Bruce Kraus noted that when he had looked into such a measure about a decade ago, it was widely dismissed.

“The consciousness of the public retailers at large has changed,” he said. “This is a really, really good step forward. This is definitely going to change the face of how we consume plastic in the City of Pittsburgh.”

So far, more than 100 businesses and organizations have signed on to support the measure, Deemer said.

More than 400 other jurisdictions nationwide have enacted similar policies, Deemer said.

Julia Felton is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Julia at 724-226-7724, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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