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State study adds to debate on COVID-19 and plastic bags

Report claims reusable grocery bags unhealthy

HARRISBURG — A new study by a state legislative agency is adding to an ongoing national debate about whether bans on plastic bags are advisable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee suggested a ban on plastic bags often distributed at grocery stores could have a negative impact on public health if it leads consumers to rely more on reusable grocery bags made of fabric to carry their groceries.

The committee’s study focused on the potential environmental impact of municipal bans on plastic bags, one of several items under the umbrella phrase “single-use plastics.” The Independent Fiscal Office issued a separate study about the economic impact of a statewide plastic bag ban.

“At a time when Pennsylvania is dealing with a pandemic and encouraging citizens to exercise social distance protocols and other hygiene practices, a negative public health consequence may result from having residents rely on (reusable grocery bags) if single-use plastic bags are banned,” said committee staffer Stephen Fickes in comments about his agency’s study.

This point is disputed by an international ad hoc group of more than 100 health experts, including a number of Americans, who said last month that the virus can contaminate both disposable and reusable products. A reusable product can be used safely by employing basic hygiene, the group said.

“Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded,” the group said.

Lawmakers weighed in on the issue, too.

State Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, highlighted the study’s statements about the contamination dangers of reusable grocery bags in a release.

“The desire of local municipalities to ban the use of single-use plastics bags cannot be made in a vacuum,” said Corman, who supports a moratorium on municipal plastic bag bans. He said the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee and Independent Fiscal Office studies show that plastic bag bans wouldn’t have the positive environmental impact people want and will hurt local economies.

State Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, Democratic minority chairman of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said the pandemic shouldn’t be used as a reason to stop municipalities from enacting plastic bag bans.

A municipality can delay enactment of a ban if leaders believe the pandemic is a problem, Vitali said.

“COVID-19 is just a pretext,” Vitali said. “What this (study) is all about is defending plastic bag manufacturers.”

The LBFC and IFO studies were ordered under a directive in last year’s state fiscal code that put a one-year moratorium on municipalities enacting ordinances to ban plastic bags or levy use fees on them. The moratorium has since been extended to July 1, 2021, or six months after Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster proclamation expires, under the stopgap, five-month state fiscal code enacted last month.

Currently, Narberth Borough regulates single-use plastic bags. Philadelphia has delayed enforcement of a plastic bag ban until April 2021 citing the pandemic.

The LBFC study focuses broadly on the “unintended consequences” if bans on plastic bags are implemented, thus the emphasis on alternative use of recyclable grocery bags and paper bags. For example, the study found that more environmental damage could be done by increased use of paper bags because of the water consumed in the manufacturing process.

However, Vitali and David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, an environmental group, said the study doesn’t pay enough attention to major environmental problems associated with plastic bags such as micro-plastic contamination in waterways and clogging of storm drains.

Meanwhile, the IFO study found that a statewide ban on plastic bags would cost consumers $72 million annually and lead to the loss of 507 jobs.

“A (statewide) ban would eliminate the annual demand for roughly 3.0 billion light-weight plastic bags. In their place, retailers would shift to paper bags and heavy-weight plastic bags and consumers would purchase slightly more reusable bags,” the IFO study said.

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