Will Pittsburgh’s Plastic Bag Ban Reduce Environmental Waste?
Pittsburgh recently joined a growing number of local governments, including Philadelphia, who have approved the ban on single-use plastic bags at the store checkout.
” I am delighted. I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Sandy Grote, who was shopping at the Giant Eagle store at the Waterworks mall in Pittsburgh with a cartload of groceries in reusable bags.
Grote worries about plastic pollution. “I really think about it because plastics aren’t going anywhere, and it’s forever. So I really try to avoid plastic when I can,” she said.
The Pittsburgh Prohibition, which will come into force in a year, will ban traders and restaurants from distributing single-use plastic bags. They may offer paper bags instead, made with at least 40% post-consumer recycled content, and for a fee of at least 10 cents per bag.
Stores can provide them free of charge to people participating in food assistance programs. Some Giant Eagle customers, like Beda Adams, don’t think stores should charge anyone for paper bags.
“I don’t think so at the moment. And even a year from now, especially with people who are struggling right now, not everyone, but for some people every penny counts, and I just don’t think it’s a good idea for them to do that,” Adams said.
Why charge for a bag?
Surfrider Foundation, a California-based nonprofit focused on protecting water quality, found that simply banning single-use plastic bags was problematic. In 2019, Surfrider looked into bag bans across the country to find what worked — at that time, there were at least 345 cities and towns in 25 states that had enacted carry-out bag bans and/or fees.
He found that where there were laws against single-use plastic bags but the alternatives were still free, consumers were content to pick up the free bags, whether paper bags or bags. thicker plastic considered reusable.
The fee is necessary to make the law work, to get people into the habit of reusing bags, according to Ashleigh Deemer, deputy director of PennEnvironment, which worked with the Pittsburgh City Council to create the bag ban.
“Anything single-use isn’t great, it’s not efficient, it uses more resources than we need,” Deemer said. “So we want to make sure that we also keep our use of paper bags down and that we really encourage people to use reusable bags.”
If it works, the ban could reduce plastic waste in Pittsburgh neighborhoods, as well as microplastics in waterways, according to Deemer. Last year his group posted a poll of 50 lakes, rivers and streams in Pennsylvania, including the Three Pittsburgh Rivers, Chartiers Creek and the Youghiogheny River. He found microplastics in all of them.
“Microplastics are exactly what they sound like, they’re tiny pieces of plastic,” she explained. “Plastic bags escape us. You see them in shreds, lying in the street. They break down into tiny pieces that are washed into our waterways. And once they’re in our waterways, there’s really no good way to get them out.
Pittsburgh plans to study the impact of banning plastic waste, Deemer said.
Critics of the plastic bag ban
But there are others, like Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, who say these kinds of bans just aren’t working.
It points to a Pennsylvania 2019 study which revealed that only 0.7% of waste collected in the state was single-use plastic bags.
“To suggest that passing this ordinance is going to meaningfully solve a waste problem that a city like Pittsburgh faces is a bit hypocritical, just because of the small portion of waste it represents,” Taylor said.
But one national waste study In the United States, Keep America Beautiful found nearly 350 million plastic bags along roads and waterways, and almost 95% of them were single-use grocery bags.
Taylor also points out to research which shows other types of bags, such as thicker plastic reusable bags and cotton bags, must be used many times over to offset the environmental costs of producing them and transporting them from overseas, where many of them are made. And he says the plastic bags are recyclable at many store drop-off points.
“We encourage people to take a broader look at this. Yes, if you ban plastic bags, you won’t see plastic bags, but that doesn’t mean what’s made is sustainable,” Taylor said. “If you force people to use products that are still made from plastic and require a lot more reuse to offset the environmental impact, is that a sustainable policy? We would say that is not the case.
Researcher Yu-Kai Huang at the University of Georgia studied the impact of bag bans and baggage fees in California, Maryland and Washington, DC. It found results similar to other studies on bag banning. “Grocery bag regulations have the potential to increase sales of plastic trash bags,” Huang said.
When people don’t have free plastic bags to line their kitchen bins, for example, they buy plastic bags, according to Huang.
“That doesn’t mean the policy isn’t good. It’s just that we just want to point out: the positive effect may not be as big as the decision-makers want,” he said.
They found that in high-traffic stores, those that generated at least 326 bags of groceries per day, the policy would end up sending less plastic to landfill.
The local grocer is mobilizing
The giant eagle started a pilot program in 40 of its locations in January 2020 which eliminated blue plastic bags at check-out. It was cut short by the pandemic, but still had an impact. “In just two months, we’ve stopped approximately 20 million single-use plastic bags from entering landfills and otherwise polluting our communities,” said Dan Donovan, company spokesperson.
Eliminating plastic bags at checkout is just the beginning of what Giant Eagle wants to do to reduce plastic in its stores.
“Our ambition is to eliminate single-use plastics from all of our operations, which includes everything from single-use plastic grocery bags to the use of plastic utensils in our cafe, from plastic bottles to single-use, water bottles, drink bottles, etc., throughout our store,” Donovan said. “If you walk into any supermarket with that in mind, you’ll quickly realize that this is an extremely ambitious undertaking.”
Kara Holsopple of the Allegheny Front contributed to this report.