Living without single-use plastic is possible…even in Pennsylvania

By Alex Caban-Echevarria

I visited my older cousin Kristina last year in California. She was a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, and I went to see her for spring break. This week-long trip happened before the pandemic hit during my freshman year. Although we lived on different coasts, Kristina and I have been close. I always admired her West Coast ideals about ethical consumption. I became aware of environmentalism when she encouraged me to use reusable water bottles and canvas bags. These small differences instilled values about waste and plastic reduction. I was mindful of this, but when I traveled to California, I saw these ideas put into practice more than in just my family.

We stayed in her single dorm and ate, shopped, and traveled basically plastic-free. This was surprising to me because in Pennsylvania I always thought it was unavoidable. The baggers at the grocery store never asked “paper or plastic?” At first, I thought the lack of plastic shopping bags was something that just Kristina did, but it was actually because California has had single-use plastic bags banned since 2014. Kristina grew up in Monterey County, where they were one of the first counties and municipalities to ban single-use plastic in 2013. This ban meant that retailers could not offer plastic shopping bags, and those that did needed to charge customers a fee to use a bag.

Since then 2013, single-use plastic bags have been banned in eight states and cities across the country such as San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. My trip to Berkeley was the first time I was amongst an entire campus community that had a vivid awareness of their environmental impact. Beyond Berekely’s campus, I saw environmentalism put into practice. The efforts to reduce plastic waste became evident to me in every reusable or recyclable container. I was most interested in the complete lack of plastic shopping bags.

Kristina’s friend Ky grew up with her in North Monterey County, but she now lives in Pennsylvania with my family. Much like my first time in California, Ky’s visit to Pennsylvania was shocking. “I’ve never seen so many plastic bags in my life!” We spoke about how the Northeast normalizes plastic consumption, and how he doesn’t know anyone back home who still uses plastic bags. At his college, the University of California Davis, he brings reusable bags to the grocery store. “Most stores charge ten cents for paper or plastic. But they are reusable plastic bags that are sturdy enough to use up to 30 times each.” This cost doesn’t seem much of a problem anywhere because if you don’t want to pay for them, the solution is simple — bring your own bag.

California banning single-use plastic bags has a reason: plastic does environmental damage. For example, in Washington, D.C., a study shows that 85% of the trash found in the Potomac Watershed consists of single-use plastic. The trash consists of plastic bags, styrofoam, snack wrappers, bottles, and cans. This waste polluting the water is a direct result of our consumption habits. Every time you grab a to-go meal or snack from a supermarket, convenience store, or restaurant, you are left with waste. This waste often doesn’t make it to public trash cans and becomes litter. Wind can lift single-use plastics and dump them in the water, where it can weave its way through our river systems. Banning single-use plastic bags would result in a 47% reduction of waste in the Potomac River.

Bag bans and small fees encourage the use of reusable bags. Charging for plastic bags deters shoppers because people don’t automatically take a bag if it costs money. A typical charge of five cents could have one cent go to business owners and four cents to the state’s Environmental Protection Agency. This fee allows those who insist on using plastic shopping bags to continue doing so while thinking about the cost and maybe become more likely to reuse the bag they paid for. The elimination of the concept of “single-use” in general helps to reduce plastic waste.

States attempting to join the eight states with bag bans are unfortunately met with preventative measures. In Pennsylvania, there is currently a preemption law that prevents municipalities like Philadelphia from enacting a plastic bag ban until July of 2021. “A ‘plastic ban ban’ was placed in the last budget,” explains Mike Schlossberg, who represents Pennsylvania’s 132cnd district. “This preempted municipalities from putting such a ban into place. It was done by Republicans who typically oppose such bans. Many of us – myself included – were forced to vote yes, even though we oppose such a ban because the budget had critical items in there for our constituents, including funding for education, human services, and property tax relief.” Opposers of a plastic bag ban argue that eliminating plastic bags will result in a loss of jobs in plastic manufacturing companies.

Senator Jake Corman, who voted for the “plastic ban-ban” Rep. Schlossberg speaks about, has a plastic manufacturing company in his district. A spokesperson for Corman claims that this ban would negatively impact the environment and economy. A study on his website cites that reusing single-use bags offsets the manufacturing of reusable cotton totes or thicker material shopping bags. The transmission of the virus through reusable bags was also used to bolster the argument that banning bags should not begin until 2021. This has not been proven to be a threat, as COVID is spread through person-to-person contact. They also argued that many factory employees would lose their jobs if single-use bags were banned. In fact, there are 160 people employed by this plastic manufacturing company.

Single-use plastic usage in our state has already made an impact. PennEnvironment studied the number of microplastics polluting Pennsylvania’s waterways. “We are encouraged to make, use and discard at the greatest possible speed,” said PennEnvironment Executive Director David Masur in a statement. “When we’re done we think we’re throwing these things away.” This cycle creates waste and litter that “turn into air and water pollution at landfills and incinerators, and clog our oceans for generations to come.” One quick way to combat this problem is to personally stop using single-use plastic bags at grocery stores.

To implement bag bans we need to vote in local elections for candidates that support environmental legislation. A 2015 poll suggests that 78% of Pennsylvania voters support safeguards to protect our water from pollution. If Pennsylvania voters want environmental policy, that requires picking candidates that support green policy. These candidates represent us as elected mayors, city council, and in the House of Representatives. Getting the ban unbanned in Pennsylvania will require the state “to rule in favor of the idea that such a ban was illegal or unconstitutional,” says Rep. Schlossberg, so people must vote for people who will then vote in favor of this.

If California can ban plastic bags so successfully for seven years, why can’t Pennsylvania do it? “I think that since it happened while we were young maybe we have a different perspective on it. It just shifted and we didn’t have that much of a concern,” Kristina replied, “but my grandma hoarded them.” Ky commented that “all of the older people moaned and groaned about it.” This made him think about how growing up coastal meant that since “so much of the population is near the ocean, we hear a lot about conservation. It’s integral to our culture.” This contrasts my experience growing up in the suburbs of Northeastern cities, but as one begins to think about consequences to their consumption, they will be more likely to become more mindful of choices that affect their environment.