Earlier this month, a handful of Delaware Valley communities sued the state over their right to choose to ban the sale and use of plastic shopping bags. The issue raises questions about local authority vs. state power, one that got tangled up in the public policy over handling the threat of COVID-19.

Interestingly the question few people are asking is “What does the science say?” The answer is far more complicated than plastic bag opponents have acknowledged.

On March 3, Philadelphia, West Chester, Narberth, and Lower Merion filed suit claiming GOP state lawmakers violated the constitution when they inserted a ban on banning plastic bags, straws and other single-use plastic products into the budget last year. However, Philly’s efforts to ban the bags go back to well before December 2019, when the city council passed an anti-bag ordinance. Four previous attempts to ban plastic bag use in the city failed.

That ban was blocked, not only by state lawmakers, but by the coronavirus pandemic, which gave plastic shopping bags a second life.

Concerns about “surface contagion” made reusable cloth bags, carried in and out of homes and stores, a pathogen-carrying pariah. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced on April 22 — Earth Day, ironically — the city was postponing the July 1, 2020 start date for its bag ban.

“This is not an announcement we want to make during Earth Week. We know the climate crisis and plastic pollution remain two very serious threats to our planet and society, even during the global pandemic,” the mayor said.

Politicians throughout the country took similar steps. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, issued an executive order urging residents “to keep reusable bags at home given potential risks to baggers, grocers, and customers.” In New York, a state senator called for the state’s plastic bag prohibition to be suspended for similar reasons.

Meanwhile, in Harrisburg, lawmakers in 2020 extended a 2019 moratorium on plastic bag bans by placing it inside a budget bill (HB1083) just hours before a full vote by the General Assembly. The measure banned municipalities from imitating fees or restrictions on single-use plastics, such as bags and utensils.

The measure, in effect, prevented Philadelphia from implementing its 2019 plastic bag ban It also postponed bag bans in West Chester and Narberth, and stalled a similar ban from going forward in Lower Merion. Left unchallenged, this meant bag bans in all four municipalities could not be implemented until November 2021.

And so now they’re suing.

“In Philadelphia and across the commonwealth, local governments are increasingly concerned about the health and environmental effects of plastic bags,” Mayor Kenney said. “Yet, once again, we face a state legislature that is focused more on tying the hands of cities and towns than on solving the actual problems facing Pennsylvania.”

According to a WHYY report, the Commonwealth Court lawsuit challenges “the state’s ban on the bans, at least until July 1, 2021, or six months after Gov. Tom Wolf lifted the COVID-19 state of emergency. Under the current state of emergency, that would delay the implementation of the municipal bans at least until November of this year.”

Philadelphia officials say they will enact the bag ban on July 1, regardless of state law. If that happens, the result could be Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Democrat Josh Shapiro, representing the state against the liberal stronghold of Philadelphia and over an issue Democrats have widely embraced.

Meanwhile, state Rep. John Hershey (R-Juniata County), who supports the state’s actions, said the bans would have a negative effect on the livelihoods of the families who live and work near the Novolex plastics plant in Milesburg.

This puts the “small-government” GOP in a fight against local governance, a principle Republicans tend to embrace.

Amid the complex politics, however, a larger issue remains largely ignored: Are plastic bag bans smart environmental policy?

If the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the science is settled: No. Multiple studies have confirmed that, as Stanford Magazine put it,”single-use plastic bags have the smallest carbon footprint.” A report from the MIT Office of Sustainability concluded: “Based on greenhouse gas emissions of material production, the paper bag would require five uses in order to have a lower impact per use than the polyethylene bag, whereas the jute bag would require 19.”

And it’s not just in the U.S. David Clement of the Consumer Choice Center wrote for InsideSources: “When Denmark considered a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags, its studies found they were far superior in comparison to alternatives. The Danes came to that conclusion based on 15 environmental benchmarks, including climate change, toxicity, ozone depletion, resource depletion, and ecosystem impact. They calculated paper bags would need to be reused 43 times to have the same total impact as a plastic bag.”

But what about litter and plastic pollution in the water? Delaware Valley Journal recently reported on a study from the nonprofit environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center that found samples from every one of the state’s 53 popular waterways contained microplastics.

But despite complaints about plastic bags fouling our streets and sewers, the definitive litter study—the 2009 Keep America Beautiful Survey—found all retail plastic bags (which includes sandwich bags, dry cleaning bags, etc) account for just 0.6 percent of visible litter nationwide.

And a recent study revealed the United States is responsible for about 1 percent of the plastic litter in the world’s oceans.

Jenn Kocher, a spokeswoman for Republican state Sen. Jake Corman, said the desire of local municipalities to enact bans on single-use plastic ought to be balanced with economic concerns, as well as the loss of jobs. Corman stated that “bans hurt the economy” and that “the employers that manufacture these bags provide family-sustaining jobs in communities throughout Pennsylvania.”