After a decade of strikeouts, Philly might actually ban plastic bags

Yes, you’ll still be able to pick up dog poop.

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American Beauty; Angela Gervasi/Billy Penn
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Updated 3:33 p.m.

Fifth time’s the charm? Councilman Mark Squilla hopes so. The District 1 lawmaker is planning to introduce a bill to ban or tax plastic bags in the city — again.

Nationwide, the idea is gaining steam. In the name of environmental sustainability, 12 states and 200 municipalities have either already halted bag distribution, or are working on preemptive measures to do so.

In Philly, not so much. Squilla’s attempt will mark nearly a half-dozen times people have tried — and failed — to reduce the use of an item that contributes to the city’s litter epidemic as it turns into urban tumbleweeds.

But Squilla appears confident that this is the year. He’s got support from the city and a few of his fellow legislators, and said much of the opposition from lobbyists has died down as bans have become more common.

“This is a great opportunity right now,” Squilla told Billy Penn. “Before the end of 2019, this legislation will pass.”

A decade’s worth of strikeouts 

The first time City Council debated a bill to curb plastic bag use, it was 2007.

Backing the idea were then-councilmembers Jim Kenney and Frank DiCicco (now Zoning Board of Adjustment chair), along with four others. But lobbying from grocery and petrochemical industries proved too strong, and the bill flopped.

The same cohort tried again in 2009. And got the exact same result. That’s two flops.

In 2012, activists took up the cause. A Green Philly-spearheaded petition to ban disposable bags got 1,328 signatures, and a Facebook page dedicated to photos of bags that had littered city streets gained traction.

But to the advocates’ dismay, no sitting councilmembers took immediate action. Strike three.

Enter Squilla. The year is 2015, and the second-term lawmaker is ready to go to bat for this small-scale sustainability initiative. He suggests a 5-cent fee for anyone who uses plastic to bring home goods from city retail establishments.

Squilla had support from the Clean Air Council and the Clean Water Action, and he could point to other cities that has recently implemented bag reduction measures like Washington, D.C. and Honolulu, Hawaii.

Still, no dice. After lawmakers voiced their concerns that a plastic bag fee would be a regressive tax on poor Philadelphians, Squilla tabled it. Strike four.

Handwringing over Philly’s fits and starts at banning led Harrisburg to attempt to ban the ban itself. A bill making it illegal for cities in Pennsylvania to limit disposable bags made it to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk — where it was promptly vetoed.

Squilla hopes to introduce his new bill sometime this spring.

Chamber of Commerce won’t fight it

Is the plastic bag to Squilla what the white whale was to Ahab? Granted, “Squilla” does sound like a name of a guy who’d be found on a crazy fishing expedition. But it’s not really that complicated.

After so many duds, Squilla has a lot on the line to get this passed once and for all. It would be a legislative win he can tout for years to come — regardless of whether he gets re-elected this November.

You can’t deny the guy’s determined. He’s heard from city workers that plastic bags can clog up the recycling separators, causing jam-ups and difficulties in a city with an already poor system. “If we want to remove blight from city streets, this is one way that could help,” Squilla said.

In the past, opposition has consisted of three main arguments:

  • Banning bags would cost businesses more money, hurting the local economy
  • It would cost low-income Philadelphians more money to buy reusable bags
  • And how would we pick up dog poop?

Perhaps it’s because the legislation hasn’t yet been formally introduced yet, or perhaps because the idea is trending nationally — but Philly stakeholders don’t seem to be expressing as much opposition this time around.

Mayor Jim Kenney would support the legislation, per spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco — no surprise there, since he helped push it forward as a councilman about a decade ago. However, that’s not a golden ticket.

“We also recognize that legislation like this requires robust engagement with the business community and other stakeholders,” Cofrancisco said.

Reached for comment, both the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia and Center City Proprietors Association said they have no feelings about the potential legislation. They anticipate it wouldn’t impact their members — and therefore they probably wouldn’t lobby against the bill.

Lobbying group The American Progressive Bag Alliance did not respond to a request for comment.

Few sitting councilmembers were willing to comment on the potential bill, since official language hasn’t yet been released. But Councilwoman Helen Gym told Billy Penn she’d support it in a heartbeat, and Councilman Kenyatta Johnson expressed initial support — though he wants to see wording first. Councilman David Oh said he’d likely oppose.

For now, Squilla’s content with that support.

“With the progression of City Council and how it’s been moving forward,” Squilla said, “it seems like a time now that people will take this seriously.”

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