Local Solutions to Local Pollution

A Survey of Municipal Officials on Attitudes Toward Single-Use Plastics
Released by: PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

Executive Summary

Plastic pollution has quickly become a global environmental and public health threat, being met with growing public concern here in Pennsylvania, across the U.S. and around the planet. 

All told, Americans generate over 35 million tons of plastic waste every year, 90% of which is landfilled or incinerated.(1) In fact, the US throws out enough plastic every 16 hours to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium, and that amount is increasing.(2)  

And this is a problem. Incinerating plastic waste leads to air pollution and toxic byproducts; landfilling can cause water pollution; and litter is clogging our oceans, rivers, streams, communities, and open spaces. Moreover, there's growing data that litter and plastic pollution is leading to a growing amount of microplastics, which have been found in the air, water, and human organs.

A bipartisan group of state, county, and municipal elected officials across the nation has already implemented much-needed policies to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and the ensuing pollution it creates. This includes policies such as bans on plastic bags in New York and California and per-bag checkout fees on bags in Connecticut, Washington DC, and Chicago.(3) 

Yet instead of following in the footsteps of these other leaders, the Pennsylvania State Legislature enacted a 1-year moratorium on bans, fees, and restrictions on single-use plastics at any level of government in 2019. In the summer of 2020, the General Assembly extended the preemption, stripping local officials’ ability to implement time-tested policies to tackle plastic waste for many months, and maybe years. (4) 

Bans and other restrictions on single-use plastics like plastic bags or polystyrene containers have been shown to be effective courses of action for fighting plastic waste and pollution; following California’s statewide plastic bag ban, the share of plastic pollution on California beaches caused by plastic bags was cut by over half (5), and overall, 28 million pounds less of plastic was entering the market.(6) Preemption laws like in Pennsylvania prevent action from being taken to combat the growing single-use plastic crisis. 

Single-use plastic items like bags and polystyrene containers pose a potent threat to our environment through litter, air pollution, and climate pollution. 60% of all seabird species have ingested plastic, with that number expected to rise to 99% by the year 2050. Studies have also estimated that by 2050 (7) there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish.(8)

Single-use plastics also impose financial burdens on the commonwealth, its municipalities, and taxpayers:

  • The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) spends over $13 million every year cleaning up roadside litter.(9) Plastic is the most common form of visible litter in Pennsylvania (10).

  • Collectively, nine of the largest cities in PA spend over $68.5 million on litter and illegal dumping every year with $46.7 million of that going toward litter abatement.(11) 

Pennsylvania municipalities have been working to implement solutions. In 2018, the Borough of Narberth passed a ban on plastic bags and straws, citing the costs to taxpayers and the burden on our environment.(12) In 2019, the Borough of West Chester and City of Philadelphia followed suit.(13) 

In a survey conducted by PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center of local elected leaders and appointed municipal government officials, the overwhelming majority of responses indicated that plastic pollution is an issue and action should be taken to combat it.

  • 87% of respondents were concerned with plastic pollution in their municipalities.

  • Plastic bags were the form of plastic pollution that most concerned respondents

  • 80% of respondents wanted to pass or would consider passing binding legislation similar to West Chester and Philadelphia

  • 90% of those surveyed were in favor of, or would consider passing, a resolution calling on the state and federal governments to take action. 

  • When asked about the statewide preemption, 72% would consider taking action in opposition to the ban on bans

  • Exactly half (50%) of respondents had heard from constituents about plastic pollution

  • Only 28% of respondents had previously passed or considered passing legislation on this issue

By extending the preemption, the Pennsylvania Legislature is only making the problem worse. The evidence is mounting that recycling and other waste systems can’t handle the sheer volume of plastic that society produces.(14) Nine U.S. states have passed statewide legislation (15), with the most recent ban coming from Pennsylvania’s neighbor, New Jersey, whose legislature overwhelmingly passed a law with bipartisan support that bans plastic bags, paper bags, polystyrene containers, and only allows for plastic straws by request.(16) 

In order to address the environmental crisis being caused by single-use plastics, state and local officials should  implement the following policies:

  1. The General Assembly should lift the preemption on municipal plastic ordinances. 

  2. Local governments should implement the policies we know work to reduce plastic pollution whenever possible.

  3. Pennsylvania should implement statewide bans on the most insidious single-use plastics like bags and polystyrene foam containers.

  4. Pennsylvania should implement the Zero Waste PA legislation package that offers multiple solutions to the growing waste crisis and would transition the commonwealth away from a throwaway society.

**See full report for all citations and sources.