Plastic bags are commonly considered a serious source of litter, but taxes or bans intended to reduce the volume of bags are encountering serious opposition in Pennsylvania. (Getty Images)

Philadelphia may not be allowed to ban or tax its urban tumbleweed.

 

The Philadelphia City Council has in the past tried to gain support for legislation that aims to limit the use and litter of plastic bags in Philadelphia. Attempts to enact both a ban and a 5-cent fee per bag were made in 2015, with no success.

 

Now, the state is weighing legislation to ban municipalities from trying to control the consumption of plastic bags.

 

“Philly has a litter problem,” said state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delco/Montco, who opposes the bill. “I think this bill is being driven by Novolex, a producer that has a plant in PA. This is special interest legislation. We shouldn’t let one company drive environmental policies.”

 

But state Rep. Frank Farry, R-Bucks, a co-sponsor of House Bill 1071, flatly denied that any campaign contributions or other shady dealings are driving the bill.

 

“This isn’t about one factory. There are 15 plastic manufacturers, employing 1,300 people, in the commonwealth,” Farry said. “Novolex supports this, as do other retailers and small business owners. … It’s a significant jobs issue.”

But the Philadelphia environmental nonprofit Clean Air Council estimates that the city uses a billion plastic bags per year. Staff attorney Logan Welde thinks people would be shocked at how many of these bags end up in the city’s waterways, which ultimately costs money to clean.

“Getting bags is so ingrained in us that we don’t understand the impact of taking one bag,” said Welde. “You are being billed for them, but it’s at a hidden cost.”

Even when some businesses try to encourage reusing plastic bags or bringing in sturdier cloth bags, some consumers aren’t ready to change old habits.

“We are trying to ask customers not to use so many,” said Clara Olivares, owner of Olivares Food Market at 17th and Wharton streets. “But we aren’t having a lot of luck.”

Olivares said she spends around $80 on bags each week. Cutting that cost would save her business money, but she doesn’t think her customers are ready to start going without the plastic bags unless they are forced to, either through a tax or a ban.

“For retailers, a tax or ban would be a positive thing,” Welde said. “And what we are trying to do is change customers’ behavior by enacting a fee or ban.”

But Farry and co-sponsor state Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Clinton/Centre, actually claimed that bans and taxes on plastic bags don’t stop litter — and claimed their bill would encourage more plastic bag recycling, much of which is done by plastic bag manufacturers.

“That’s where the focus should be,” Farry said. “People shouldn’t be littering … but you have to look at the real world and ask, 'Where is the greatest impact?'” 

The bill passed the state house, 102-87, in April. It reached the Senate finance committee on Monday and is awating a vote by the full Senate.

Additional reporting by Sam Newhouse.