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‘Virtue Signaling’ Plastic Bans Spreading in Philly Suburbs

Whether it’s a burrito bowl at Chipotle or a “Dazzler Sundae” at Haagen-Dazs, dining will be more interesting at the King of Prussia Mall. The kids will have to eat them without plastic utensils.

Upper Merion Township’s Board of Supervisors last month unanimously passed a ban on single-use plastics, including utensils, foam plastic, bags, and straws. While several local communities have banned single-use plastic bags, Upper Merion is the first to ban plastic utensils.

Green activists celebrate the bans as acts of environmental protection. But environmental journalists and experts say they are largely symbolic and may do more harm than good.

A Pennslyvania Manufacturer’s Association representative dismisses it as “virtue signaling.”

While Upper Merion’s ban on containers takes effect January 1, 2024, the utensil ban won’t be imposed until July 1, 2024 — a sign that finding a replacement for the cheap, disposable utensils won’t be easy.

And critics ask why they do it in the first place.

Last December, Doylestown Borough Council passed an ordinance banning the use of single-use plastic bags at shops and restaurants. It took effect on June 23.

Ted Taylor, a Doylestown resident, isn’t thrilled.

“The Acme charges $1.99 a [reusable] bag. They will be happy to sell them to you,” he posted on Facebook. “It’s a new profit center for them and an inconvenience to shoppers, to say the least. The supermarket across the street is in a different township and gives bags. Guess where we shop?”

New Jersey’s law banning plastic bags and polystyrene foam food service products took effect on May 4, 2022. As a result, says Hamilton, N.J. resident Frank Clayton, bought a bunch of reusable bags.

“I always leave them in the car, only to remember them when my cart is full,” said Clayton. “Like getting in the shower without a towel.”

Michael Straw, a Republican running for a council seat in Media, said, “Media Borough has begun enforcing its single-use plastic bag ordinance. Although I haven’t seen any issues as of yet, I would be interested to see if our small businesses are seeing additional costs with the need to have different types of bags available for customers.”

Nelson Dayton, owner of Dayton Lock Company in Wayne, said most people are “adapting and accepting.”

“Every once in a while, you see somebody coming out of (the Giant) with their shopping cart with all the groceries and no bags because they didn’t bring them in or they forgot, or they don’t have them, and they just gotta load everything in their car,” Dayton said.

His customers are not complaining, he said. Under the ordinance, he has to sell them paper bags for 10 cents if they don’t have their own bag.

“The 10-cent charge has to appear on the receipt,” said Dayton. “And it’s just crazy. I don’t know how they can mandate that; somebody will eventually challenge it. They can’t tell you how much to charge and that you have to charge. That’s ridiculous.”

Chris Todd, owner of Christopher’s restaurant in Wayne and a Wayne Business Association board member, said they were already using paper bags for carryout for several years at Christopher’s.

“Between Whole Foods and the hardware store, I see people getting upset,” Todd observed. If he forgets to bring a bag, he said he will “just carry to my car in my hands if I have to. My wife popped a (reusable) bag in my car so she wouldn’t hear me complain anymore.”

But are those reusable bags an improvement?

According to a CNN report, a cotton bag must be used at least 7,100 times to be better for the environment than a conventional plastic bag. A 2020 report from the United Nations said the thicker plastic-coated reusable bags need to be reused at least 10 to 20 times to be equal ecologically and still create waste in landfills when discarded.

Reason reported a Scottish study found manufacturing paper bags consumes 10 percent more energy than making conventional plastic bags, four times as much water, emits three times the greenhouse gases, and creates 14 times more water pollution and nearly triple the solid waste. And a 2007 study by the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance found that paper bags take 3.4 times as much energy, make five times as much solid waste, emit twice as much greenhouse gases, and use 17 times more water.

Carl Marrara, with the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, told DVJournal he believes the entire bag-banning endeavor is shortsighted. It also hurts workers at plastics plants in the state.

Many plants that make plastic bags also make single-use medical supplies that are very necessary, Marrara said.

“If we’ve learned anything from COVID, it’s how fragile our supply chains are,” Marrara said. Do we want to “get stuck in a similar situation where suddenly we don’t have (the medical supplies), nor can we get them?”

These bans are just “virtue signaling,” he added.

And manufacturers consider things like bans when deciding where to site or expand their plants.

“You’re not going to do that in a place where your product is not allowed,” he said. “You’re not going to build a brewery in a dry town.”

There are also new processes for recycling plastics that change the equation, he said.

Encina is building a plant in Danville that will take the plastic down to the molecular level and then repurpose it, something “we couldn’t even think of 10 years ago.” This will create a circular plastic economy “where we’re able to reuse the same plastics again and again. Manufacturers always find ways to innovate.”

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