More News:

April 28, 2023

After year of enforced plastic bag ban, Philly residents are starting to use less paper bags, too

The city commissioned a study to evaluate the effects of the moratorium, finding it prevented 200 million bags from being used

In the year since Philadelphia began heavily enforcing its ban on single-use plastic bags, the city has managed to reduce its overall consumption of disposable bags, according to a report commissioned by city officials. 

The efficacy study, published on Thursday, was conducted by Daniel Bank-Ferran, a PhD student at the University Pittsburgh, and Syon Bhanot, a professor at Swarthmore College. The study evaluated the city's ban on single-use plastic bags and the impacts that it has had on shoppers, finding that the ban prevented 200 million plastic bags from being used since it was first implemented in July 2021.

The study author's said 200 million bags is roughly equivalent to filling City Hall with plastic bags every night for eight months. The research found that plastic bag usage has significantly decreased since the ban was implemented in the summer of 2021, with just 4.1% of residents using plastic bags by October of that year. Prior to the ban, 64% of Philadelphia residents used at least one plastic bag per trip to their local grocery store. 

The decrease in plastic bag usage was offset by an influx of paper and reusable bag usage. The percentage of consumers who opted for paper bags jumped from 17.7% to 45.5%, while those choosing reusable bags jumped from 21.9% to 41.7% by October 2021. In the months following the ban's formal enforcement in the spring of 2022, however, the trend of residents opting for a paper bag has started to dwindle, as the likelihood of grabbing a reusable bag has continued to increase, the study found. 

"We know that keeping our beautiful city clean and clear of trash is key for the health and wellbeing of all Philadelphians," Mayor Jim Kenney said in a press release. "This success of the Plastic Bag Ban Ordinance shows how the City, together with local businesses and consumers, can help decrease plastic bag usage in the city — a major pollutant of our streets and waterways." 

It took about three months for plastic bag usage to decrease in the city, and it remained below 5% for the remainder of the study period, which ended in August 2022. The likelihood of using reusable bags increased gradually during that time. Paper bag usage, however, peaked six months after the ban was initially implemented in 2021 and has started to recede slightly. 

The decrease in plastic bag usage was greater than the increase in paper bag usage, leading to an overall reduction of disposable bag usage across the city. The number of residents choosing not to take a bag at all similarly increased from 4.9% pre-ban to 14.3% post-ban. 

City Council passed the plastic bag ban ordinance in 2019, but its implementation was delayed several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It officially went into effect on July 1, 2021, when business owners were required to start displaying signs informing customers of the upcoming ban. 

The prohibition then went into effect in October of that year, but the city provided business owners with an extension to meet compliance. The city began more heavily enforcing the ban on April 1, 2022, and those who don't follow the law now face violations with financial penalties starting at $150. 

The ban prohibits businesses from using all single-use plastic bags, including those made with polylactic acid, as well as paper bags made with less than 40% recyclable content. There are some exceptions to the rule — such as for dry cleaner bags and those that come packaged in multiples — but plastic grocery bags and restaurant take-out bags are prohibited. 

Philadelphians previously used nearly 1 billion plastic bags per year. City officials, including Kenney, believe that the ban is an important step in helping Philly achieve its climate change goals. 

Since Philly implemented its own ban, several suburban towns have adopted similar bans and restrictions on single-use plastics. Haverford, Media and Radnor have each enacted bans, and on Wednesday, Cheltenham became the 16th municipality in Pennsylvania to ban plastic bags. 

Cheltenham's policy, which goes into effect on New Year's Day but will likely include an extended compliance period, will halt the sale and distribution of single-use plastic bags in grocery stores, pharmacies, corner stores and other retailers. It requires that paper bags must be made of 40% recyclable materials and sets a 10-cent fee on the use of paper bags. 

Faran Savitz, a zero-waste advocate for PennEnvironment, suggested that City Council work to implement a 15-cent fee on paper bags in order disincentivize people from using any disposable bags whatsoever. 

"It's time for Philadelphia to leave our longstanding 'throw away' norm because there is no true 'away' for disposable bags," Savitz said in a press release. "The vast majority of them just end up in a landfill or incinerator, or litter our environment. Nothing we use for a few minutes should be allowed to pollute our surroundings for hundreds of years to come."