Pittsburgh’s cluster-cluck in a plastic bag

Pittsburgh’s cluster-cluck in a plastic bag

What an absolute mess Pittsburgh City Council is expected to adopt this week.

As deadly violence rages in the streets and credible concerns mount if the Golden Triangle business district ever can recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, among other critical issues, the council is on track to approve a ban on “single-use” plastic shopping bags.

If adopted on Tuesday, the ordinance would go into effect in April 2023.

In its newly amended form, the city will be required to develop a public education and business assistance plan to aid the transition. The cost? Unknown.

While plastic bags will be banned – save for those used to “contain” vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, garbage and pet waste — businesses can use reusable bags or offer paper bags, the latter for a fee of 10 cents, to help them offset the cost of the more costly paper bags.

Says ordinance sponsor Erika Strassburger:

“In this case there will hopefully be a little bit of a profit margin which goes back to the retailer [from the fee] to use for purchasing whatever they want,” which could, she said, include buying reusable bags to hand out free to customers.

Good grief. Think of the bureaucratic nightmare to come. And, again, at what cost?

Additionally, exemptions have been carved out for those receiving food stamps and other welfare benefits. They might not be able to afford the plastic bag ban, goes the thinking.

As the Post-Gazette reported it:

“The goal of the bill is to reduce litter in the form of plastic. PennEnvironment, an environmental group that advocated for the bill, estimated that it could reduce more than 108 million plastic bags from entering the city’s waste stream.

“’Nothing we use for just a few minutes should have such a harmful and lasting impact on our environment, our communities and our health,” Ashleigh Deemer, the deputy director of PennEnvironment said during the meeting. ‘When passed, this will be one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful plastic bag policies in the country.’”

But it is intellectually dishonest to claim that these bags are only used “for just a few minutes.” Who among us does not reuse plastic shopping bags to carry our lunches to work, carry to the house fruits and vegetables harvested from our gardens, line our powder room waste baskets or collect pet waste from our yards and litter boxes, among many, many other secondary uses?

So, what’s the difference between this form of a plastic bag and those exempted for use for many of the same purposes? There is none.

And the premise that these soon-to-be banned shopping bags are gross generators of pollution has been debunked — regularly.

As Zachary Taylor, director of the American Recyclable Plastic Alliance, told a City Council hearing, plastic grocery bags “do not account for meaningful portions of litter and waste.”

Citing a Pennsylvania-wide survey, he said plastic grocery bags are responsible for less than 1 percent of all litter. And citing various studies, Taylor added that up to 77 percent of single-use plastic bags are reused, as we’ve noted herein.

“The proposal will not meaningfully address litter or waste but will incentivize the distribution of products with worse environmental performance, whether paper bags or stitched bags imported from some of the worst polluting countries in the world,” he added later in a statement to the media.

Guess what’s also missing for the proposed plastic bag ban? An enforcement regimen.

Are plastic bag cops on the horizon? Or will onerous compliance paperwork be required of businesses to attest their compliance? And, once again, at what cost?

The coming plastic bag ban looks to be the proverbial “solution” in search of a problem. It has all the makings of yet another government cluster-cluck. And an expensive one at that.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle @alleghenyinstitute.org).