Prove your humanity

This story comes from our partner, 90.5 WESA.

A new survey found that Pittsburgh businesses have overwhelmingly complied with a local ban on plastic bags. The city soft-launched a plastic bag ban in October but began enforcing the rules two months ago.

Environmental nonprofit PennEnvironment surveyed 50 local businesses and found that 82% had stopped distributing plastic bags.

“What we found should give Pittsburghers reason for optimism,” said Zachary Barber, a clean air advocate at PennEnvironment. “That is a huge step forward to a zero-waste society, and especially since we use these plastic bags for just a few minutes before they pollute our planet for hundreds or thousands of years.”

Read More

But the survey found a clear difference in compliance between retail businesses — including grocery, clothing and convenience stores — and restaurants.

While retail locations surveyed had a 93% compliance rate, only about 68% of the 22 restaurants surveyed had stopped distributing plastic bags.

Environmentalists gathered Downtown Tuesday to discuss their findings, and to call on the city to engage with noncompliant businesses more often. Barber said the city should enlist plastic-bag-free restaurants to help other eateries make the switch.

“We know that our restaurants can do better than this,” Barber said. “And so we’re excited to work with everyone to help make that happen.”

PennEnvironment recommended the city itself do more to educate restaurants and other businesses about why the bag ban was implemented.

“This law was passed to help tackle that waste, which is clogging our waterways, littering our communities, harming wildlife, and even ending up in our own bodies,” Barber said.

Pittsburgh hired an environmental enforcement manager, Tobias Raether, to work with businesses on the bag ban and handle fines for those found to be out of compliance. Raether was not present at Tuesday’s press conference and did not respond to requests for comment about the findings.

PennEnvironment was joined by other environmental groups Tuesday, including the Pennsylvania Resources Council and Humane Action Pittsburgh. The groups argued that reducing single-use plastics will beautify city streets and protect wildlife.

“The proliferation of single-use plastics and the resultant litter is an undeniable blight in our city,” said Natalie Ahwesh, executive director of Humane Action Pittsburgh. “But beyond mere aesthetics, these materials pose a real threat to avian species, marine life, wildlife and of course, we as humans.”

The bag ban was first introduced by City Councilor Erika Strassburger, who has been a vocal advocate for waste reduction and environmental causes. Strassburger’s chief of staff, Scott McMurtry, said PennEnvironment’s survey provides the city with a benchmark as the nascent ban becomes more established.

“Like any new program, it will take time to reach full compliance,” he said. “Thanks to the work provided today, we have a clearer picture of where we need to focus the city’s outreach.”

The survey did not collect data about how often businesses are enforcing a 10-cent fee for paper bags, which was designed to encourage shoppers and diners to bring reusable bags.

Though PennEnvironment’s survey found room for improvement, Barber stressed that Pittsburgh is on track to outpace compliance in Philadelphia, where a bag ban was rolled out in 2021, and enforcement began in 2022.

“What we found in Philadelphia was … a bit of a hot mess at this point, [with] widespread noncompliance,” he said. While in Pittsburgh, “even the worst sector was still at 63%, which … is still a majority.”