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Lawmaker proposes statewide plastic bag ban

Rep. Sims having a discussion on the house floor.

As a court battle over individual cities’ bans of plastic bags drags on, a Pennsylvania lawmaker is pushing the legislature to ban plastic bags statewide.

Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, has introduced House Bill 1382 to create a paper bag fee that is split between businesses and environmental programs. Sims proposes a 15 cent fee per bag for paper bags to be collected the same way sales and use taxes are paid. By contrast, New York currently charges a 5 cent per bag fee for paper bags.

Unlike New York’s plastic bag ban, Sims’ proposal would refund all of the paper bag fees a retail establishment collects if the business has annual revenue of less than $1 million, refund 50% of the paper bag fees collected if a business’ revenues are between $1 million and $10 million and keep all of the fees if the business’ revenues are more than $10 million.

Any Pennsylvania businesses found giving out plastic bags would face a $50 fine for the first violation, a $100 fine for the second violation and a $200 fine for a third or subsequent violation.

“To protect our environment for generations to come, it is time we find a way to move on from using plastic and paper bags. They are one piece of the puzzle of daily conveniences that are damaging our environment and contributing to climate change, which is one of the greatest threats to not only the Commonwealth, but our world,” Sims wrote in his legislative justification.

There are 10 states with plastic bag bans: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Sims’ bill comes while the statewide Commonwealth Court has been asked by Philadelphia, West Chester, Narberth and Lower Merion Township to say a state legislative action that blocks plastic bag bans is unconstitutional.

According to the Associated Press, a one-year moratorium on plastic bag bans was sponsored by then-Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, initially slipped into a broader, 69-page budget bill during closed-door negotiations with Gov. Tom Wolf, without any public hearing, and passed and signed within two days of becoming public. The AP reported the provision prohibited municipal bans or taxes on plastic bags or packaging for one year while legislative agencies were to study the economic and environmental impact.

One of the studies, conducted by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, concluded that plastic bags weren’t a big source of pollution to Pennsylvania’s municipalities. Another, by the Independent Fiscal Office, said demand for light-weight plastic bags would fall by 1.6 billion a year. Retailers would shift to paper bags or heavier-weight plastic bags, while some consumers would buy more trash bags and ultimately spend $70 million more, it said.

Data suggests that Pennsylvanians use 4.6 billion plastic bags a year, it said.

The AP reports the statewide moratorium on plastic bag bans was extended last May, again inserted into budget legislation. It now lasts until July 1, or six months after the governor lifts the COVID-19 state of emergency declaration, whichever is later.

In 2017, Wolf vetoed a bill to prevent counties and municipalities from banning plastic bags. Novolex warned that the veto could make Pennsylvania less competitive and hurt workers.

Philadelphia passed a ban on single-use plastic bags in December 2019. City officials have delayed its implementation amid COVID-19 restrictions, as have some states, but it plans to put it into effect later this year. Narberth and West Chester also passed bans, while Lower Merion officials said they had hoped to do the same but have been stymied by the state law.

Environmental advocates say Philadelphia uses close to 1 billion single-use plastic bags every year. City business liaisons said they believe the reduction in plastic bags on the street, something that contributes to the nickname “Filthadelphia,” will help attract tourists and visitors.

“The goal of this is to get people to bring their own bags. … The reductions would be almost immediate,” said Logan Welde, director of legislative affairs for the Clean Air Council, pointing to New York City’s ban. “When you go to New York, you notice there are no plastic bags floating around. They’re all gone.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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