In four months, Pittsburgh will be plastic bag-free

In April, the Pittsburgh City Council voted to ban single-use plastic bags by retail businesses at checkout or delivery. This legislation will go into effect one year from the day of the 9-0 vote, April 14, 2023. Under the legislation, “retailers will be able to provide a consumer with a recycled paper bag for a fee of no less than 10 cents; the fee will be fully recouped by the retailer.” This fee will not apply to those who use an EBT transfer card or those who are a part of the Women, Infants, and Children program.

The legislation also requires businesses to post information in their stores in advance of these changes. Beginning 90 days after April 14, 2023 and for six months after, affected locations must post signage advertising this change.

The Carnegie Mellon Bookstore is one of those locations. A sign outside the bookstore advertises the upcoming changes. They will be prohibited from providing plastic bags and non-recycled paper bags, they may not charge less than 10 cents per recycled paper bag provided, and the charge for the bag must be on the receipt as “carry-out bag charge.”

A pilot of a reusable bag program is also outlined in the legislation. No later than 90 days after the legislation is enacted, a pilot reusable bag program that will allow for purchase, donation, and distribution of reusable bags by individuals and organizations will be established.

While this legislation was passed in April 2022, the original proposal was introduced in November 2021 by Councilperson Erika Strassburger and was held for several months to clarify details related to equity and implementation.

"This landmark piece of legislation will sharply curtail litter, mitigate stormwater risk, reduce the amount of microplastics in our soil and water, improve the City’s recycling efficacy, and begin to break our dependence on fossil fuel-based products,” Strassburger said of the ban.

Every year, Americans use approximately 100 billion plastic bags — requiring 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture. These single-use plastic pages contribute to litter in communities, collect in waterways, and clog storm drains. Additionally, single-use plastic bags obstruct the City’s recycling machines and take 500 years to decompose in a landfill.

A report from PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center in 2021 sampled 50 of Pennsylvania’s “most iconic rivers, lakes, and streams.” They found microplastics in 100 percent of their samples. 94.3 percent of those sites sampled had microfilm, which comes from bags and flexible plastic packaging.

The text of the legislation reveals some of the littering problems in Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh. From the 2018-2019 Pennsylvania Litter Research Study, there are an estimated 502 million pieces of litter on Pennsylvania’s roads, with most common items being cigarette butts and plastics. There is an estimated 2,000 pieces of litter per mile in Pittsburgh alone.

The text also states that the ban on single-use plastic bags has the potential to eliminate more than 108 million plastic bags from Pittsburgh’s waste stream every year. This action also is a result of the city’s Climate Action Plan 3.0, which has a goal of Zero Waste. This means a 100 percent diversion of waste from landfills and modernizing waste collection systems.