The debate about plastic bags: fee, ban, or status quo?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The debate over plastic bags is on hold in Pennsylvania but still rattling lawmakers and consumers across the country.

This year, two state representatives introduced a bill to stop municipalities from enforcing taxes, fees or bans on plastic bags. Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the bill last month, but the discussion lingers.

We followed plastic bags from purchase to disposal to figure out what makes the thin layer of plastic so contentious.

Starting at the grocery store, customers agreed it’s easy access that makes them grab the bag.

“They’re easy to carry home” and “I don’t think there’s a choice for any other bag” were some of the answers we got.

Americans go through hundreds of billions of plastic bags a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But after your bags go from the grocery store to that “bag drawer” everybody has, the life of a plastic bag gets much more complicated.

“The problem is that many times, the bags don’t get recycled properly. They don’t get put in the trash properly,” said Tom Smith, the executive director of Keep York Beautiful, which fights to keep the state free of pollution and environmental threats.

“They end up getting disposed in the environment, blowing all over the place, and they’ll last in the environment 10 to 20 years,” Smith said.

The bags crowd landfills, threaten animals and pollute oceans.

But we learned recycling isn’t the answer, either.

At Penn Waste in York, we watched as employees manually removed bags from conveyor belts of recycled waste. The bags that aren’t caught during stage one — which is hundreds — end up clogging the facility’s machinery. At the end of the day, one machine is unrecognizable with so many bags woven within it.

“It adds almost about a full hour for six or seven people,” said Steve Houser, the recycling manager, “An hour extra every day to remove the bags.”

As the consumer, you’re ultimately the one paying those employees’ overtime.

At this point, no one wants to deal with the bags, which is why several states and cities have banned plastic bags while others impose a tax or fee. Pennsylvania cities including Philadelphia and York are discussing hopping on that bandwagon.

“The states that have adopted this and cities where they’re actually removing plastic bags from the stores, people are changing,” Smith said.

There’s not really enough research to prove that, but you can imagine manufacturers are not willing to take that chance. Members of the plastic bag plant Novolex in Centre County gathered at the state Capitol to voice their opposition to anti-bag laws.

Novolex, one of the largest plastic bag-making plants in the country, is one of 15 like it in the state.

“Do I feel targeted?” said Mya Lau, who owns one of the 14  others called Lancaster Extrusion. “Yeah, a little bit.”

Mya is one of 1,500 employees statewide for which two state representatives, Republican Rep. Frank Farry and Democratic Rep. Mike Hanna, proposed a pre-emptive strike: a law to stop municipalities from putting a tax or fee on plastic bags.

Novolex is in Hanna’s district, but Farry has since been more vocal on the issue.

“What the people in those towns enacting the bans aren’t thinking about is the small towns in central Pennsylvania where these factories are located, and where these factories are to some degree the economic drivers of those communities,” Farry said.

Wolf in a statement on his veto cited environmental concerns and preserving local government’s rights.

“Our lives would completely change without plastic,” Lau said. “You can’t just go around punishing the plastic industry. You’ve got to let us come up with a better plastic, a more environmentally friendly plastic.”

Lau now makes biodegradable bags. Wegmans tells us they buy biodegradable bags because they’re actually more environmentally friendly than paper bags and much cheaper.

The big chains also offer to properly recycle plastic bags for you, if you return them to special bins outside the stores.

“I really wish we were spending our time focusing on the recycling of these bags and expanding those opportunities,” Farry said.

He plans to revisit his bipartisan bill next session, so for now, it’s status quo.

We did find one particularly unanimous opinion in all but plastic bag manufacturers: reusable bags are preferable. But as of now in Pennsylvania, that’s up to you — without charge.

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