Statement: PennEnvironment disappointed with Pennsylvania General Assembly’s reports on single-use plastic

Two new reports on this subject downplay environmental impacts and municipal enthusiasm
For Immediate Release

HARRISBURG -- The Pennsylvania General Assembly released two reports Friday on single-use plastic. The Independent Fiscal Office (IFO)'s report on the economic impacts of single-use plastics and the Legislative Budget & Finance Committee (LBFC)’s report on the non-economic impacts on bans/fees were both required by a law that set a one-year ban on local regulations on single-use plastics. 

PennEnvironment Clean Water & Conservation Advocate Stephanie Wein issued the following statement on the reports:

“While we’re glad to see the state investigating the issue, we disagree with several of the conclusions by these two studies.

“The LBFC survey looked into municipal attitudes towards single-use plastic. While it is true that the majority of municipalities that responded to the survey would rather the state be responsible for setting single-use plastics regulations, this survey didn’t then address the question: Who should act when the state refuses to take action?  It’s a mistake to think local governments don’t want action on single use plastics, when what they really want is the General Assembly to step up on this issue. 

“The reports also downplays the impacts of single-use plastics on the environment and public health, including:

The life cycle impact of single-use plastic bags. The LBFC study draws the conclusion that plastic bags are often a preferable environmentally friendly alternative to paper. By citing an out-dated 2012 study it neglects to account for the explosion in natural gas production that has taken place over the last decade in Pennsylvania. Whether it’s the wells being drilled throughout the Marcellus Shale region, the new petrochemical plants being built in the Ohio River Valley, or the pipelines being built through Southeast Pennsylvania, plastics are no longer manufactured from ‘‘by-products’.Instead they are a major driver of demand for fossil fuel production and thus the climate crisis.

The role of plastic bags in litter. The reports mistakenly rely solely on a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation litter survey, rather than incorporating other government data provided by PennEnvironment. If the additional information was considered it would be clear that plastic bags represent a much higher percentage of litter than the surveys suggest. The knock-on effect of this error is that the reports fail to properly calculate how local water departments are spending heavily to pull litter out of sewer drains and other stormwater infrastructure. These efforts sometimes double stormwater infrastructure maintenance costs, which increases the burden on ratepayers. 

The source of our global plastic crisis. The reports downplay the impact of the global plastics crisis on our oceans. The survey points out that, globally, the 10 major rivers that carry the most plastic waste into our oceans are located in Asia and Africa. This is a misguided effort to shift blame overseas. What’s not mentioned is that much of the plastic waste overseas was sent there from the United States, which uses single-use plastic packaging at a much higher per capita rate than Asia and Africa. Now, with overseas markets closing their doors to American waste, we will run out of places to send our trash and will need to prevent these materials from entering the waste stream in the first place.

The health risks of reusables. Claims in the reports that E. coli can persist on reusable bags, which come from studies funded, in part, from the American Chemistry Council, are misleading. While E. coli may persist on those bags, there is no evidence that it can be found there any more than on single-use plastic.  With the COVID-19 pandemic, the public is especially sensitive to messages about hygiene, but it needs to be reiterated that based on the best available science and guidance from public health professionals, it is clear that reusable systems can be used safely, reflecting the CDC’s data demonstrating COVID-19 isn’t easily spread on surfaces.

“We know the appetite for solutions to the plastic crisis is growing, and that policy solutions exist. From Anchorage to Washington D.C., from California to Maryland, we’ve seen that municipal action on single-use plastic delivering real results for the environment by reducing demand for something we use once, but that pollutes our environment for centuries to come. We maintain that Pennsylvania’s cities and towns have their finger on the pulse of their constituents and know if and when it is the right time to use different policy tools to address plastic waste.”  

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PennEnvironment is dedicated to protecting our air, water and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives. For more information, visit www.PennEnvironment.org.