PennFuture Blog

Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues

What comes next for plastic bags in Pennsylvania?

July began with the expiration of a statewide restriction on banning the use of plastic bags. The development is welcomed news for municipalities across the Commonwealth implementing or considering bans on the ubiquitous plastic that too often finds its way into local waterways as litter or becomes a costly contaminant in recycling systems. 

Credit likely goes to the legal challenge led by Philadelphia and other Southeastern Pennsylvania municipalities and joined by Pittsburgh. Their lawsuit likely discouraged the General Assembly’s Republican leadership from renewing the bag-ban moratorium. 

Originally passed in 2019, the amendment to Act 23 prohibited enacting or enforcing any tax that would discourage the use or sale of single-use plastic. After the General Assembly extended the one-year restriction in 2020, this year the July 1 extension deadline came and went as quietly as a plastic bag drifting in the wind. 

Media reports suggest “pending litigation” that revealed the moratorium’s unconstitutional approach may have played a role in legislators’ decision not to extend the ban — for now, at least.

Are the days of plastic bags coming to an end? 

This fall, the General Assembly could still take action to limit bag bans. Philadelphia’s lawsuit mostly centers on the moratorium’s procedural tactics. 

With local plastics manufacturers and lobbyists representing the grocery industry still opposed to local bans, supporters in the General Assembly could potentially attempt to overcome their mistakes and find new ways to prevent limits on single-use plastic. 

The fact that this is up for debate shows how backward-minded our state’s plastics approach has become. Nationwide, a dozen states ban single-use plastic at the state or county levels. Virginia state law specifically allows municipalities to issue fees on single-use plastic if local leaders so choose.   

Cities move forward 

In the meantime, local action to transition away from single-use plastics is gaining momentum.   

The same day that the statewide moratorium expired, Philadelphia announced implementation of the city’s single-use plastic bags ordinance would begin, with enforcement starting April 1. 

Philadelphia’s legislation prohibits retailers from using carryout or delivery plastic bags less than 2.25 mils thick. The city will also prevent use of paper bags that contain less than 40 percent recycled content.

Pittsburgh appears next in line. City Council passed a resolution in May saying that the city intends to pass a ban on single-use plastic bags in the near future.

With Pennsylvania’s two largest cities taking action to eliminate plastic waste, other towns and cities are likely to follow their lead.

Environmental and financial benefits

Let’s take a moment to remember why getting rid of single-use plastics is a move in the right direction. Recent studies found plastic bag bans in other states and cities resulted in significant reduction in plastic bag consumption — in some cases, a decrease of more than 70 percent. 

Benefits of switching from single-use plastic bags to reusable bags include:

  • Less Litter: Plastic bags don’t like to stay in one place. Wind-blown bags escape from trash bins, dump trucks and landfills to pollute our streets, parks, streams and rivers. Currently, the equivalent of one dump truck of plastic litter enters our oceans every day. Microplastics can hang in the air, perhaps traveling 100 miles or more downwind. That’s why even our most pristine places are getting covered in plastic trash.
  • Cost Savings for Local Governments: In recent years, the value of recycled waste has declined, leaving municipalities with narrow operating margins when processing local waste. Single-use plastic offers no post-consumer value, making it even harder to be profitable when recycling. In fact, plastic bags can jam equipment at material recovery facilities, at times causing the entire recycling facility to shut down. Such work shortages have cost cities millions of dollars.
  • Reduction in Pollution: Plastics are manufactured using resource-intensive petrochemical processes that require burning significant amounts of fossil fuel, contaminating local air and contributing to the climate crisis.  
  • Affordable Convenience: Consumers adopt new behaviors when their options change. To help with this transition, reusable or recyclable alternatives are widely available, affordable and practical. Free tote bags should continue to be handed out at public events. Local leaders can also allocate funds to programs that help to ensure fees on single-use plastic are not punitive on marginalized members of society. In cities like Washington, D.C., proceeds are spent on environmental remediation and education efforts that directly benefit members of the community. 

To ensure Pennsylvania does our part to address the growing challenge of plastic waste, PennFuture will continue to monitor the General Assembly and advocate for commonsense policies. Phasing out single-use plastics makes sense both environmentally and economically. 

But if those arguments fail, perhaps those who celebrate liberty should embrace the right for cities and towns to make their own decisions, including the choice of how they manage their own waste.

Get the Latest onOur PennFuture

Sign up for email updates on the latest news, events, and opportunities to make a difference.

Sign Up