Pittsburgh City Council Unanimously Passes Ban on Single-Use Plastic Bags

The ban will go into effect a year from today.
Plastic Bags

PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK

Just in time for Earth Day, plastic bags are on their way out in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday approved a bill that will ban single-use plastic bags, reducing the distribution of nearly 110 million bags annually. Pittsburgh is the sixth municipality in the commonwealth to pass this kind of legislation, joining Philadelphia, West Chester and others.

The ban was first proposed by Pittsburgh Councilwoman Erika Strassburger last fall, but was paused because of supply-chain and inflation concerns expressed by small businesses and community members. The bill, Strassburger said, had many issues that had to be worked out before it could become actionable legislation. Issues included enforcement of the ban, public education initiatives and the timing for when it would go into effect.

The ordinance, which will go into effect next year primarily impacts retailers and restaurants.  Paper bags may be distributed at a cost of at least $0.10 per bag, and they must consist of at least 40% recycled post-consumer content. 

Shoppers who use cards or vouchers from either the Woman, Infants and Children program or an EBT transfer card will be exempted from the 10-cent fee.

The bill also requires the city to develop a public education and business assistance plan to help with the transition, as well as a plan to distribute reusable bags to Pittsburgh residents. 

“This landmark piece of legislation will sharply curtail litter, mitigate stormwater risk, reduce the amount of microplastics in our soil and water, improve the City’s recycling efficacy, and begin to break our dependence on fossil fuel-based products,” Strassburger said in a statement. “A dedicated group of stakeholders has been working for several months in order to craft an effective and equitable policy, and the feedback we received during working sessions was incorporated into a much-improved final bill.”

According to a release from City Council, Americans use 100 billion plastic bags per year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture. Besides the environmental impact on pollution from the manufacturing process, single-use plastics like bags also contribute to litter in communities, collect in waterways and clog storm drains, which can increase flooding.

In 2021, PennEnvironment reported that it found microplastics in 100% of tested Pennsylvania waterways. Single-use plastic bags also obstruct the City’s recycling machines and take 500 years to decompose in a landfill. 

“This bill will significantly reduce plastic waste and litter in our communities, parks and iconic rivers and streams,” PennEnvironment’s Deputy Director Ashleigh Deemer said in a statement. “Nothing we use for 5 minutes, like single-use plastic bags, should be allowed to litter our communities, pollute our environment, and fill our landfills for hundreds of years to come.”

But not everyone sees it that way. 

Zachary Taylor is the director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, which argues that plastic bags are easily recyclable and emit fewer greenhouse gasses during the manufacturing process than paper bag alternatives. Taylor said that this ban — and the 10 cent fee — will hurt working families and small businesses in Pittsburgh.

“As families face higher grocery bills week after week, the proposal to establish a business-retained tax on paper bags and ban Pennsylvania-made, recyclable grocery bags is tone deaf,” he said in a statement. “The proposal will not meaningfully address litter or waste but will incentivize the distribution of products with worse environmental performance.”

Taylor also objected at a preliminary vote last week, citing a survey of litter across Pennsylvania that found plastic grocery bags account for less than 1% of litter. He also cited a study that found up to 77% of single-use plastic bags are actually reused.

Other critics of the legislation fear that it will simply create a plastic bag replacement rather than ban, as many reusable bags are also made from plastic. 

Categories: The 412