Will Pittsburgh’s plastic bag ban reduce trash in the environment?

Pittsburgh recently joined a growing number of local governments, including Philadelphia, in approving a ban on single-use plastic bags at the checkout in stores.

“I’m thrilled. I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Sandy Grote, who was shopping with a cart full of groceries in reusable bags at the Giant Eagle store at the Waterworks Mall in Pittsburgh.

Grote worries about plastic pollution. “I’m really thinking about it because plastics aren’t going anywhere, and it’s forever. So I really try to avoid plastic when I can,” she said.

Pittsburgh’s ban, which takes effect in a year, will ban retailers and restaurants from handing out single-use plastic bags. Instead, they can offer paper bags that are made from at least 40% post-consumer recycled content and charge customers a minimum of 10 cents per bag.

Stores can provide them free of charge to people participating in food aid programs. Some customers at Giant Eagle, like Beda Adams, feel that stores shouldn’t charge anyone for paper bags.

“I don’t think so at the moment. And even a year from now, especially with people who are struggling right now, not everyone counts, but for some people every penny counts, and I just don’t think it’s a good idea for them to do that,” he said adams

Why ask for a bag?

The Surfrider Foundation, a California-based nonprofit focused on protecting water quality, found that simply banning single-use plastic bags is problematic. In 2019, Surfrider surveyed bag bans across the country to find out what was working—at the time, there were at least 345 cities and towns in 25 states that had bans and/or fees on carry-out bags in place.

It turns out that where there were laws against single-use plastic bags but alternatives were still free, consumers would just take the free bags, whether they were paper or thicker plastic bags that are considered reusable.

According to Ashleigh Deemer, associate director of PennEnvironment, which worked with the Pittsburgh City Council to create the bag ban, the fee is necessary for the law to work, to actually get people into a habit of reusing bags.

“Anything that’s single-use isn’t great, it’s not efficient, it takes up more resources than we need,” Deemer said. “So we want to make sure we’re also minimizing the use of paper bags and really encouraging people to use reusable products.”

If it works, Deemer says the ban could reduce plastic waste in Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods and also reduce microplastics in the waterways. Last year her group published a survey of 50 lakes, rivers and streams in Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh’s three rivers, Chartiers Creek and the Youghiogheny River. Microplastics were found in each of them.

“Microplastic is exactly what it sounds like, it’s tiny pieces of plastic,” she explained. “Plastic bags are going away from us. You see them in tatters lying on the street. They break down into tiny pieces that are washed into our waterways. And once they’re in our waters, there’s really no good way to get them out.”

Pittsburgh plans to study the impact of banning plastic waste, Deemer said.

Criticism of the plastic bag ban

But there are others, like Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, who say these kinds of bans just aren’t effective.

He points to a 2019 study in Pennsylvania that found only 0.7% of the state’s trash collected was single-use plastic bags.

“To suggest that passing this ordinance will meaningfully address a waste problem faced by a city like Pittsburgh is a bit disingenuous given just the small fraction of the waste items that make up it,” Taylor said.

But a national study by Keep America Beautiful of garbage in the US found nearly 350 million plastic bags along roads and waterways, and nearly 95% of those were single-use grocery bags.

Taylor also points to research showing that other types of bags, such as thicker reusable plastic bags and cotton bags, need to be used many times to offset the environmental costs of their manufacture and transportation from overseas, where many of them are made. And he says plastic bags are recyclable at drop-off points in many stores.

“We encourage people to take a closer look at this. Yes, if you ban plastic bags, you won’t see plastic bags, but that doesn’t mean what’s being done is sustainable,” Taylor said. “If you force people to use products that are still made out of plastic and require a lot more reuse to offset the environmental impact, is that a sustainable policy? We’d say it’s not.”

University of Georgia researcher Yu-Kai Huang studied the effects of bag bans and bag fees in California, Maryland and Washington, DC. He found results similar to other bag ban studies. “Regulating grocery bags can potentially increase sales of plastic garbage bags,” Huang said.

If people don’t have free plastic bags, for example to line their kitchen garbage cans, they buy plastic bags, according to Huang.

“It doesn’t mean that politics isn’t good. We just want to emphasize: the positive effect may not be as significant as policymakers would like,” he said.

They found that in high-traffic stores that produce at least 326 grocery bags per day, the policy would result in less plastic being sent to landfill.

Local grocer performs

Giant Eagle began a pilot program at 40 of its locations in January 2020, eliminating the blue plastic bags at the checkout. It was interrupted by the pandemic but still had an impact. In two short months, we have prevented approximately 20 million single-use plastic bags from going to landfill and otherwise contaminating our communities,” said Dan Donovan, spokesman for the company.

Removing plastic bags at checkout is just the beginning of what Giant Eagle wants to do to reduce plastic in its stores.

“Our goal is to eliminate single-use plastic from our entire operation, which includes everything from single-use plastic bags for groceries, to the use of plastic utensils in our cafe area, single-use plastic bottles, water bottles, beverage bottles, etc., throughout our store,” said Donovan. “Anyone who walks through a supermarket with this thought quickly realizes that this is an extremely ambitious undertaking.”

Kara Holsoppel from the Allegheny Front contributed to this coverage.