Tobias Raether is the environmental enforcement manager for the city of Pittsburgh. He started the job in June and he’s the first person to hold the position. His purview: ensuring a smooth rollout of the city’s ban of plastic bags that goes into effect next month.
The city already delayed the rollout of the plastic bag ban six months, but it will finally be implemented next month. Practically speaking, Raether said, that means the area’s large retailers have agreed to begin implementing the ban on day one. But, he added, there will be a grace period before enforcement begins.
“Our goal is not to have this ban be something that is immediately having financial penalties or burdens on any of these businesses,” he said. “But more looking at that initial enforcement stage, just an opportunity to have more one-on-one support.”
Retailers across the city were supposed to have posted information about the ban already.
Dan Donovan, the director of corporate communications at Giant Eagle, said the company is trying to communicate early with customers about the change by posting signs at registers and on windows facing the parking lot. Giant Eagle has already phased out plastic bags in several other markets, and Donavan said they’ve learned some lessons. One is that there’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting a reusable bag in the car.
“If every single-use plastic bag turned into a paper bag, we would be solving one problem but perpetuating another,” Donovan said. “So first and foremost, it’s really important that we encourage customers, we make it easy for customers to use reusable bags.”
The plastic bag ban goes into effect Oct. 14. Here’s what you can expect and need to know ahead of the rollout.
Once the ban goes into effect, you will no longer receive free plastic bags in the city of Pittsburgh when you shop at a retail store.
Instead, you will either have to pay 10 cents to purchase a paper bag, buy a reusable bag or bring your own reusable bag.
Why is this happening?
Pittsburgh City Council voted for this change in 2022 in order to limit plastic waste, litter and environmental contamination.
Pretty much everywhere within Pittsburgh city limits, including big grocery stores as well as small convenience stores. It also includes restaurants, farmers markets, food trucks and festivals.
Are there exceptions?
Dry cleaners and pharmacies are the only exceptions, although pharmacies won’t be able to give you plastic bags for non-pharmaceutical products.
You can also continue to use plastic bags inside the grocery store in the produce section for fruits and vegetables, as well as for unpackaged meats and fish, nuts, bakery goods, flowers, etc.
You can continue to buy plastic bags in bulk for use in your home, such as bags for garbage, food storage and pet waste.
What about fast food and food delivery?
The ban is intended to replace any bag with handles regardless of size. Many fast food restaurants, however, package orders in paper bags already. Will those paper bags be subject to the charge of 10 cents per bag? Raether said it depends.
For example, a small paper bag at McDonald’s that carries a burger and fries won’t be affected. But fast food restaurants will have to start applying the per-bag fee for larger paper takeout bags with handles that include multiple orders.
Restaurants that are worried about food spilling are encouraged to buy paper bags with an inner plastic lining, Raether said.
Won’t the additional fee hurt low income residents?
People who make purchases using an EBT card, such as for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) don’t have to pay 10 cents for their paper bags.
Wasn’t this supposed to start in April?
Yes, but the city council voted to delay the rollout another six months in order to better educate residents about the change.
What happens if a store doesn’t comply?
Stores will first receive a warning and information about how to comply. The city can issue $100 fines for a second infraction and up to $250 for a third infraction and any infractions after that. But Raether said there would be some grace period before fines begin.
Residents can call 311 to report businesses violating the new policy.