Single-use plastics are a ubiquitous convenience in modern life, but many single-use plastic items are difficult to recycle and often end up in landfills. From there, they break into microplastics
that end up in the water, in animals’ stomachs, and in our bodies.
For years, banning the materials has been a non-starter in Pennsylvania, but that is changing now.
Since 2019, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has had a preemption on bans or fees relating to single-use plastics, barring municipalities from implementing their own bans or fees. But the General Assembly passed the 2021-22 state budget on June 25 without language extending the preemption, allowing cities, townships and boroughs to implement and enforce ordinances related to single-use plastic as early as Dec. 8, 2021.
“Local governments need to use all the tools in the toolbox to tackle the environmental threat by plastic pollution,” PennEnvironment clean water and conservation advocate Stephanie Wein says. “We can no longer allow something that we use for only a few minutes to pollute our environment and planet for hundreds of years.”
Pittsburgh officials have signaled that they will create a plastic bag ban. Pittsburgh City Councilor Erika Strassburger told Spotlight PA
that the city had already started plans to implement a ban before it knew the preemption would expire, and now has a clearer timeline of when it can do so. In May, Pittsburgh City Council passed a resolution in support of wanting to implement a plastic bag ban.
Philadelphia will have a plastic bag ban start taking effect in July, but enforcement will be lax for until April 2022. Both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia plan to institute outreach campaigns as part of implementation.
The General Assembly initially extended the preemption in the five-month budget deal negotiated in May 2020. The preemption would last through July 1, 2021, or six months after Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 emergency order was lifted, whichever was longer.
The decision to allow the preemption to expire follows a lawsuit filed March 3, 2021, by the City of Philadelphia, the boroughs of West Chester and Narberth, and Lower Merion Township. They were later joined by PennEnvironment, the Clean Air Council, and the City of Pittsburgh. The lawsuit asked Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court to declare the General Assembly’s single-use plastics preemption in violation of the state’s constitution.
Starting in December, municipalities will be able to limit, ban, or place fees on single-use plastics such as plastic bags, straws, and foam take-out containers.
“Our local governments deal with the brunt of plastic pollution, which litters our streets, parks, and waterways, and threatens our wildlife. Cleanup costs for our roads, streets, and sewer systems cost taxpayers and ratepayers millions of dollars,” Wein says. “If the legislature won’t tackle the plastics crisis, they should get out of the way.”