A township in a conservative area of Pennsylvania has banned single-use plastic bags, an issue that has been spreading across the Keystone State, observers say.
Lancaster Township officials approved a measure in August that will fine store owners up to $500 per offense, per day, if they provide single-use plastic bags to customers, according to the ordinance that takes effect January 1, 2024. The regulations apply to “any store, commercial establishment, or any other location that sells perishable goods.”
The rules do not apply to reusable bags, such as a bag made of cloth or “a polypropylene bag” made for multiple uses. Establishments can use paper bags, but the ordinance notes that paper can create problems for the environment.
“It is recognized that single-use paper bag manufacturing, transportation, and resource consumption also affect the environment, but they are biodegradable, single-stream recyclable, and provide a practical … alternative consistent with most local and state single-use plastic regulations and prohibitions,” the ordinance says. “Although preferable to single-use plastic bags, the overall effects of producing, providing, and allowing single-use paper bags should also be mitigated to reduce waste, litter, and natural resource depletion by encouraging, facilitating, and promoting reusable bag use.”
Alison Keane, president and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA), says the ordinance fails to take into account studies that show that flexible packaging can be recycled.
“Plastic bags, like paper bags, are fully recyclable and made with recycled content,” Keane says. “What is needed is an investment in collection, sortation, and recycling infrastructure to meet today’s packaging needs.”
FPA, a trade organization based in Annapolis, Maryland, monitors legislation and initiatives while advocating for the flexible packaging industry.
“Banning doesn’t solve the pollution problem,” Keane says. “If you ban the top 10 things found in the environment, the next 10 will show up.”
The ordinance offers an opportunity for a company to ask for an exception and argue that the ban poses an “undue hardship.”
Lancaster Township is the first municipality in Lancaster County to ban single-use bags, but it becomes the 23rd municipality in Pennsylvania to pass legislation that curbs the use of single-use plastics, according to PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental advocacy organization.
“These measures set strong standards for halting the sale or distribution of single-use plastic bags at grocery stores, pharmacies, corner stores, and other retailers,” PennEnvironment says. “This ordinance is a strong first step on the path to curbing plastic waste in the township and in the county.”
The group expects more laws to follow.
“We’ve seen the wealth of support from residents who care deeply about this issue calling for action,” says PennEnvironment’s Conservation and Zero Waste Advocate Faran Savitz. “Lancaster Township joins hundreds of cities across the nation that have already implemented similar legislation.”
So far, four states have adopted comprehensive extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations. EPR laws mandate that the producers of packaging pay for the systems to capture waste to keep it out of landfills by having it recycled, reused, or composted. California, Colorado, Oregon, and Maine are in various stages of implementing their laws.
In developing their ordinance, Lancaster Township officials said their goal was to protect the environment but also to remove the bags from the waste stream so they do not clog sorting equipment at recycling facilities.
The bags can bind and clog sorting equipment and “become an operational and financial burden on recycling facilities,” the ordinance states.
Keane suggests the community could find ways to solve its problems without resorting to a ban.
“If instead of this ordinance every retailer in the township had a store take-back bin and consumers were better educated on bringing bags and other films back, there would be more recycling, as well as less environmental impacts and less cost to the consumer,” Keane says. “Consumers ultimately pay the price for this shortsighted ban.”
Lancaster County also is one of several Pennsylvania communities that has a waste-to-energy facility, where an incinerator burns solid waste to create electricity.
The Lancaster Waste-to-Energy Facility (WTE) estimates that it reduces waste volume by 90% so less waste is sent to landfills, while powering the equivalent of about 20% of area residences, according to WTE’s website.
Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor at FlexPackVOICE®.