The blue plastic bag is being replaced by reusable bags. Photo courtesy of Freepik.

This is the last week you can forget your reusable bags in the car and use plastic bags provided by stores when you go shopping: Pittsburgh’s plastic bag ban goes into effect on Saturday, Oct. 14.

When the ban is in full effect, shoppers who want bags will either have to provide their own, buy a reusable bag from a retailer, or pay 10 cents for a recycled paper shopping bag.

Not all plastic bags will be banned. The plastic bags used for produce and bulk goods, the plastic to wrap meat, prepared foods and flowers, and bags in which products are packaged by manufacturers will still be permitted.

The ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags, which was passed by Pittsburgh City Council and signed by Mayor Ed Gainey, was supposed to take effect in April but was delayed to allow more time for retailers and the public to prepare.

“What we really want is culture change,” City Councilmember Erika Strassburger, D-Squirrel Hill, who sponsored the ordinance, said. “We want people to bring reusable bags.”

Is there a grace period?

That doesn’t mean that all businesses that provide shoppers with plastic bags will immediately stop using them. Businesses will have some time to get rid of the bags they have through regular use. 

Tobias Raether, the environmental enforcement manager in the city’s Department of Public Works, said he wants to see the use of all of the plastic bags ended “no later than January 1.”

The legislation allows businesses 18 months from the effective date to use the bags they have on hand. After that, “retail establishments are prohibited from providing a single-use plastic bag or a non-recyclable paper bag to a customer at the retail establishment or through a delivery.”

“If a business has a large supply of plastic bags, we don’t want them throwing them all out,” said Alicia Carberry, recycling supervisor in the city’s Department of Public Works.

One reason for the ban is that when the bags wind up in the recycling stream, they clog the conveyor belts that recycling sorters use. The expense of manually cutting the bags out of the sorting system led Pittsburgh to distribute blue recycling cans throughout the city to replace the blue bags.

Strassburger said Pittsburgh’s bag ban was delayed because the blue plastic bags handed out to shoppers had been instrumental to the city’s recycling program, but now that the program to distribute blue recycling cans to residents is nearly complete, the bags can be eliminated.

Plastic bags will no longer be available at the Waterworks Giant Eagle Market District after the ban goes into effect. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

Where else is this happening?

Single-use plastic bags are currently banned in eight states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont.

In 2021, Philadelphia enacted a similar ordinance banning single-use plastic bags. And like in Pittsburgh, the paper bags allowed under the ban in Philadelphia have to be made using more than 40% recycled paper. 

Philadelphia had wanted to pass a plastic bag ban earlier, but in 2019 the state legislature prohibited cities from instituting such bans. That prohibition was dropped after Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and three other municipalities filed a lawsuit against the legislature.

Does it work?

In April of this year, Philadelphia’s city government commissioned a study of the ban that was conducted by Daniel Banko Ferran, from the University of Pittsburgh, and Syon Bhanot, from Swarthmore College.

The researchers noted that before the ban, an estimated 1 billion single-use plastic bags were used every year as 64% of shoppers used at least one plastic bag. After the ban went into effect, just 4.1% of shoppers used plastic bags. The researchers estimated that the ban led to the elimination of more than 200 million plastic bags. At the same time, the use of paper bags jumped from 17.7% to 45.5%. Before the ban, 21.8% of Philadelphia shoppers used reusable grocery bags, which jumped to 41.7% after the ban went into effect.

Retail establishments are required to post signs at all points of sale informing customers that plastic bags will no longer be provided as Oct. 14. Signs must remain until at least April 14, 2024.

What are the alternatives?

Shoppers who don’t bring their own reusable bags can buy a paper bag instead.

But Carberry said that businesses do not have to provide bags to shoppers.

At first, Philadelphia did not charge for paper bags, but now retailers in the city are required to charge for bags. “Ten cents is right about the amount needed to nudge customers away from bags,” Raether said.

Here, that bag money will go back to businesses, Carberry said, to cover the cost of the paper bags. 

People who make purchases using an EBT card don’t have to pay 10 cents for paper bags. The city is also exploring a reusable bag donation program.

Why are plastic bags so bad?

The bags being banned are known as T-shirt bags and became the ubiquitous shopping bag in the 1980s. They were easy to manufacture and so light and thin that they were cheaper to transport than paper bags.

Now the average family brings home 1,500 of the plastic bags a year, according to Eric A. Goldstein, urban program co-director for the National Resources Defence Council.
Not all of them make it from store to home to landfill.

The 2019 Pennsylvania Litter Research Study, conducted by the consultants Burns & McDonnell and paid for by the Pennsylvania Departments of Environmental Protection and Transportation, estimated that the state was covered in 502.5 million pieces of litter, a third of which are plastic, and 30% of that is plastic film.

The plastic bags, when caught by the wind, float in the air and are often tangled in trees. They are found in streams, on roadsides, flying through traffic and caught in the sewage system.

The study of litter looked specifically at Pittsburgh, where the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership removed 880,000 pounds of litter and trash from Downtown in 2018. The city’s annual Garbage Olympics collected 970 bags of garbage in 2019, not including 130 tires and 95 TVs. Pittsburgh Regional Transit spends $1.5 million each year keeping its light rail stations and bus stops litter-free.

What’s the enforcement?

Raether said the city has been focusing on informing retailers that the ban is going into effect, but he knows that as of Oct. 14, not all of the city’s 6,000 retail businesses and restaurants will realize the ban is in place.

As the enforcement manager, Raether will first issue a business a warning for violating the ban. A second violation could bring a $100 fine and a third a $250 fine.

Customers can contact the City of Pittsburgh’s 311 Response Center to report a business that is not in compliance.

Where can I find out more?

Details are available on the city’s Plastic Bag Ban website.

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.