Is Philadelphia Ready for a Plastic Bag Tax?

A nickel apiece to raise cash for street cleaning and limit waste.
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At Tuesday’s green-themed mayoral forum, one of the few issues dividing the six candidates was a prospective tax on plastic bags in our city. Although Abraham, Oliver, Kenney and Diaz all threw their support behind the idea, frontrunner Anthony Williams stood out in opposition, calling a single-use bag tax “a good idea in theory,” but ultimately a “regressive tax.”

That’s an argument we’ve heard before. In 2009, when legislation imposing a bag fee was last introduced in City Council, it failed largely for this reason. The plastics lobby argued that the proposed 25-cents-per-lag fee would be a punitive tax on lower-income Philadelphians and cost families some $365 extra per year. They swayed enough Council members, including now-Council President Darrell Clarke, to vote down the measure 10-6.

So why are the prospects for passage any different this time around? For one, the fee is expected to be lower—chosen at a rate that’s been effective for other big cities. Environmental groups have been clamoring for Councilman Mark Squilla to introduce a new bill this year that’s expected to call for a 5-cents-per-bag fee. In Washington D.C., around $2 million per year is being collected through an identical tax that’s been in place since 2010 (and there’s been a sharp reduction in use as well). During the year before D.C. passed its bill, roughly 250 million bags were used among residents. Philadelphians use more than 500 million. If our ordinance worked similarly, we’d collect more than enough money to pay for street-sweeping ($3 million a year), along with additional litter initiatives.

Another reason to give the bag tax a second look is simply the preponderance of cities, states and nations that have elected to outright ban or tax plastic bags. California became the first state in the country to ban them last year (although the policy has been put on hold). The cities of Chicago, Austin, and Seattle have all passed bans on non-biodegradable plastic bags. So too have dozens of nations, including Switzerland, Malawi, and Italy. The deleterious environmental effects of plastic bags add up for Philadelphia, to the tune of thousands of tons of waste per year.

But it’s not like Anthony Williams’s opinion doesn’t have proponents as well. New York’s City Council has been deadlocked over a bill calling for a 10-cents-per-bag tax. And in Baltimore, the Mayor vetoed an outright ban. Detractors in both cities expressed concern over additional costs being levied on lower-income residents.

Mayor Nutter has taken Philadelphia recycling to record-breaking heights through the Greenworks initiative. If the plastic-bag tax passes City Council this year, there’s a good chance he’ll sign it. But it won’t take effect until the next mayor is in place, and whether he (or she) endorses the program depends on the victor.