Chinatown: Businesses and Shoppers React to Plastic Bag Ban

Phase two of the plastic bag ban is set to start on Oct. 2.

Shoppers still use plastic bags even after the first phase of the plastic bag ban went into effect (Kent Kuo/PN).

Story by Kent Kuo

With the second phase of Philadelphia’s plastic bag ban starting on Oct. 1, corner store staff and customers in Chinatown are preparing for the change.

The bag ban prohibits stores from providing single-use plastic bags to customers. Stores that don’t comply with the law during the second phase will receive warnings from city officials. 

Throughout Chinatown, many stores still have large stacks of plastic bags just behind the counter, and shoppers can be seen loaded down with plastic bags all along the sidewalks. 

“I did not really hear about the policy until now, but I will follow the policy,” Gloria  Li, a frequent shopper in Chinatown, said. “I usually bring my own reusable bags, so I think this ban is acceptable.”

Damon Yeh works at Heng Fa Food Market in Chinatown, and said the policy is a good one overall.

“We believe this policy is beneficial for both our environment and our next generation,” he said. “We are ready for this and we are delighted to see it coming because we know this is beneficial for our environment.”

Damon Yeh, a staff member at Heng Fa Food Market, talks with a customer. (Kent Kuo/PN)

To avoid inconvenience while following the policy, Yeh said his store has had to plan ahead, trying to go through their existing bags so they wouldn’t have any overstock once the ban is in place. 

“We don’t purchase any plastic bags now, and we would stop providing plastic bags once we run out of inventory,” he said. “Instead, we would replace them with cloth bags and charge customers.” 

Instead of free plastic bags, Heng Fa customers without their own bags will need to purchase a cloth bag at checkout. A sign at the checkout counter and a billboard outside the store both inform customers of this policy.

The first phase of the plastic bag ban went into effect July 1. Stores were expected to start changing over from single use bags, though the policy was not enforced as City officials and businesses educated their customers about the change. 

The multi-phase approach has taken more time than officials originally expected. 

“Philadelphia is committed to continuing to advance our environmental goals,”  Mayor Jim Kenney said in the statement announcing the second phase of the bag ban. “And while the ban on single-use plastic bags will go into effect later than we originally anticipated, we believe this timeline will help increase compliance.”

Over the next several months, there will be increased  public education and warnings issued to businesses that do not comply. The ultimate goal of the policy is to prohibit single-used plastic bags completely in April, 2022. Businesses who violate the ban after that date will be issued citations.

Philadelphia’s director of sustainability, Christine Knapp, still anticipates some challenges after Oct. 1.

“I think we will likely see smallers stores like little corner stores who haven’t heard about [the plastic bag ban] and continue to use them,” she said. “I think we have to do more outreach to them, continue to get more information for them.”

Knapp also sees the public as an important partner in making sure the ban is a success. She hopes that regular shoppers at smaller retail stores would try to inform business owners about the ban or report noncompliant stores to the City. 

Christine Knapp, Philadelphia’s director of sustainability, express her concerns about plastic bag usage after Oct. 1 (Kent Kuo/PN)

Ali Belkacem, owner of the food truck Famous Halalfood at Temple University, did not know about the upcoming ban.

“We’ve always received the information from the City’s Health Department, but I haven’t heard of the ban,” he said.

The ban could be onerous for Belkacem to implement, he said. He suggested that the city should make it easier for smaller stores to get the paper bags they need to comply. Currently, smaller stores can easily stock paper bags large enough for sandwiches and to-go boxes, but to stock larger bags, business owners need to sign contracts with large companies, Belkaem said.

For some customers, like I-Ming Huang who does most of his shopping at corner stores in Chinatown, the ban on plastic bags should not be considered a long-term solution for solving all environmental problems. 

“I think, of course, it would reduce plastic wastes and decrease the chance to see litter on streets in Philadelphia,” he said. “But I think what we have to change is the fundamental problem for all Americans that we have to form a habit of bringing our own shopping bags.”

Huang elaborated with an example from his daily life. 

“Many markets and stores are changing to paper bags, which are relatively eco-friendly,” he said. “If Americans cannot bring their own bags autonomously, it would still be a lot of waste since people would just keep taking paper bags.”

Knapp also said  people continuing to use paper bags instead of bringing their own reusable bags dilutes the potential impact of the policy. 

“The production, the delivery of paper bags… it would still be a problem for our environment,” she said.

The bigger problem, Yeh said, is a culture of waste, sustained by convenience.

“Americans take stores offering bags for granted,” he said. “They have never encountered a situation when they cannot get bags.”

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