As Philly, Pittsburgh move ahead on plastic bags bans, will Lehigh Valley follow suit?

Written by on July 12, 2021

 As Philly, Pittsburgh move ahead on plastic bags bans, will Lehigh Valley follow suit?

By Megan Frank

July 12, 2021

Pedestrians carry plastic bags in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Philadelphia and three other municipalities in Pennsylvania sued the state Wednesday over what they say was a covert abuse of legislative power to temporarily halt local bans or taxes on plastic bags handed out to customers by retailers. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania legislators have opened the door to let local governments ban plastic bags.

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Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are moving ahead with single-use plastic bag bans this year and some Lehigh Valley cities and towns are expected to follow. 

But in Northampton County, Executive Lamont McClure says he’s not sure it’s the right time.

“We’re still recovering from a pandemic and we probably don’t need to add additional costs onto consumers right now,” McClure says.

McClure says retailers offering alternatives like brown paper would pass the cost on to consumers at a cost of up to 15 cents per bag. 

Bag ban advocate groups, like PennEnvironment, say most consumers already bring reusable bags. 

“If you bring your own bag then there’s no fee at all,” says Stephanie Wein, spokeswoman for PennEnvironment. “There’s never been such a thing as a free bag. You were actually paying for that bag in your can of soup and your box of cereal.” 

Bag bans in Pennsylvania would be enacted by local governments and not the county or state. Wein says consumers should be given ample time to prepare for changes.

“Most good laws leave plenty of time for public education,” Wein says. “For example, Philadelphia’s plastic bag ban went into effect on July 1. The ban won’t actually be enforced until April of 2022.”

Wein says remnants from plastic bags can last in the environment for hundreds of years. 

“In a hundred years you may not see that same bag, but it might have broken down into tiny microplastics that find its way into our food and into our water, that have health effects we’re only now starting to understand,” says Wein. 

Microplastic contaminants have been found in 53 waterways in Pennsylvania, including the Lehigh River, according to a 2021 study conducted by PennEnvironment. Samples that were from waterways like Saucon and Little Lehigh creeks, and the Lehigh and Delaware rivers all contained microplastic pollutants. 

Some bag bans in place across the U.S., Wein says, include a square footage minimum. That means the policies give exemptions for small stores like bodegas. In some instances, Wein says smaller stores are granted more time to comply.

“Local governments can choose different approaches to get to that place,” Wein says. “In California, there are exemptions on a bag fee for people using SNAP or WIC benefits.”

Last year, PennEnvironment conducted a survey of 100 officials across 23 Pennsylvania counties about plastic litter and pollution. Wein says 80% of respondents said they would consider passing legislation to tackle the issue.

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