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Bill by Pennsylvania lawmaker would tax plastic bags by 2 cents

| Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, 10:42 p.m.

Your decision about whether to carry your purchases from a store in paper or plastic bags could affect your bottom line if a Pennsylvania lawmaker's push to tax plastic bags is successful.

Under the proposal, customers would be charged 2 cents for each single-use plastic bag they get from large retailers. Revenue from the tax would be split equally between the store and the state's Recycling Fund.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery County, said he wants shoppers to think twice about how many plastic bags they use to tote items home.

“You use it for a half hour, and they stay around for 5,000 years,” Leach said.

Only about 30 percent of plastic bags are recycled or reused, with many ending up in landfills or, worse, along streets or in streams or oceans, where they kill as many as 700 birds and animals each year, Leach said.

If enacted, Pennsylvania would be the first to approve a statewide plastic bag tax. Eight states, including neighboring New York and New Jersey, are considering a fee or tax on plastic bags while six states are considering banning them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Hawaii has a de facto statewide ban, as all four counties in the state ban non-biodegradable plastic bags at the checkout.

At this point, only local governments, including Washigton and Seattle, have been been successful in enacting such a tax.

A similar plan in Philadelphia failed, as did one in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg is taking another stab at it with a proposal to impose a 10-cent-a-bag tax that would revert back to the retailers.

Some shoppers like the proposal.

“I think it's a good idea,” said Barb Walkinshaw of Jeannette. “It would make you think twice about how many bags you're carrying out.”

Statistics from the Clean Air Council show that Americans use about 102.1 billion plastic bags a year, with less than 1 percent of those being recycled.

In campaigning for the measure, Leach said it's not so much about collecting the money as it is about encouraging shoppers to make the right environmental choices.

But the Pennsylvania plan faces an uphill battle in the state Senate. A similar plan was introduced last session and did not advance.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said the chamber has no immediate plans to consider the measure.

Arenson said any added tax may face stern opposition from lawmakers.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said other issues, such as transportation funding and expanding Medicaid coverage, would take precedence.

“At this point, there are a lot of other pressing needs we have to address before we get to that,” Costa said.

Under Leach's plan, only retailers that grossed more than $1 million in the previous tax year would be subject to the bill. Smaller stores would not have to collect the tax.

Jessica Stevens, a spokeswoman for Target, said the Minneapolis-based retailer does not have a specific position on the plastic bag tax but that Target, like many other businesses, encourages customers to bring reusable bags by offering a 5-cent discount for each reusable bag they bring.

Since 2009, Target shoppers have used more than 140 million reusable bags, totaling more than $7 million in discounts and avoiding the use of more than 350 million plastic bags, Stevens said.

Some shoppers don't want to see another tax, no matter how noble its goal.

“I pay too much in taxes already,” said Cliff Shannon of Greensburg, who said he recycles his plastic bags and bottles. “More taxes? No one's going to be happy about that.”

Staff writer Deb Erdley contributed to this report. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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