Chinatown: Shoppers and Businesses Adjust to Plastic Bag Ban

After a few months of adjustment and delayed enforcement, businesses and customers are getting used to life without plastic bags.

A shopper navigates the aisles of a Chinatown grocery store, reusable bags in tow. (Kent Kuo/PN).

Story by Kent Kuo

Once the City of Philadelphia implemented its plastic bag ban on Oct. 1, Philadelphia shop owners and customers began to see actual changes inside the city’s stores.

“Since the day we stopped giving plastic bags to customers, they’ve started to bring their own shopping bags when coming to the store,” Damon Yei, an employee from HengFa Food Market in Chinatown, said.

Yei said he now rarely sees plastic bags in the store.

Sometimes, customers forget to bring their own bags and are reluctant to buy the reusable bags the store provides. So, they come up with alternatives. 

“We also have some cartons for people to carry back their items if they don’t want to buy our shopping bags,” Yei said.

Restaurants and beverage shops have also begun to use many alternatives to reduce their reliance on plastic bags.

Xiu Liu, who works in a Chinese restaurant named ShangHai 1, talked about how their restaurant uses bags now.

The front sign outside Shanghai1. (Kent Kuo/PN)

“We used to give only plastic bags in the restaurant,” Liu said. “But after the ban, we buy and use mostly paper bags and only use plastic bags when necessary.”

Using plastic bags is still inevitable in some stores. Liu said that many orders are not suitable for using paper bags, especially those that include soups and foods with liquid. Nevertheless, the restaurant’s plastic bag usage has significantly shrunk over the past  few months. 

At beverage shops, paper bags are often inconvenient as well. Raymond Li, the owner of Tan Tea & Knight Club, has been looking for alternatives because he can not use either plastic bags and paper bags.

“Paper bags would be soaked by the water from the drinks when drinks get cold,” Li said. 

Some shops keep a number of plastic bags on hand for when paper bags are inconvenient. (Kent Kuo/PN)

Instead, he has prepared cloth bags for customers to use when they need bags.

Friendship BBQ, also a Chinatown restaurant, offers paper bags and cloth bags to package large take out orders. The costs of these bags add up, though, creating added strain on a business that once heavily relied on plastic bags. 

“It would be better if the city government could help us to reduce the cost,” Jenny Lin, the owner of Friendship BBQ, said.

Li agreed, stating that government help is needed to help defray the costs of transitioning to non-plastic bags. 

“If the government doesn’t help us, the cost would eventually reflect on the price,” he said.  “It would mean customers pay for bags, which they are not willing to do.”

Wei-Shu Chang is one of the customers who said he was not willing to pay for the bags.

“I started to bring my own one since I don’t want to pay for bags,” he said.

Christine Knapp, director of the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability, suggested retail stores that they can decide not to provide cloth and paper bags if they don’t want to absorb the costs.

“Stores are not required to provide paper or any other kind of bags, so if they do not want to pay the costs for them, they do not have to,” Knapp wrote in an email.

Additionally, she mentioned that retail stores are allowed to charge customers for bags under the City’s plastic bag ban ordinance.

“Stores are also allowed to charge customers for any bags they provide if they would like to to help offset their costs,” Knapp said.

Besides the additional cost from alternatives,  many Philadelphia customers seem unaware of the ban, or unprepared with their own bags when they enter a store.

Friendship BBQ’s Jenny Lin calculates monthly expenses. (Kent Kuo/PN)

Lin expressed her frustration with customers who behave as if they don’t know the ban exists.

“Sometimes, when people are asking for plastic bags, we tell them we can no longer provide that,” Lin said. “Their attitudes will be, somehow, rude.”

Li also has noticed customers frustrated with his response to the plastic bag ban.

“We used plastic bags when delivering beverages before, but when using cloth bags now, we charge the customers for bags,” Li said. “Some would complain about why they have to be charged with bags, along with the quality of bags.”

Li said many customers got used to free plastic bags, and when charging for cloth bags, they don’t understand why Li could not just keep providing plastic bags.

“I think the city government should promote the ban more so that we don’t have to face such problems,” Lin said.

Chang also suggested the government raises more awareness about bringing our own bags.

“After all, Americans still need to be reminded because they are still adjusting to the ban,” Chang said.

Besides customer complaints, many small businesses—such as food trucks—to big retail stores—like the Burlington Coat Factory—are still providing plastic bags without knowing stores are prohibited to give plastic bags now.

Knapp acknowledged that the government also thinks the lack of promotion and communication around the plastic bag ban is a major challenge.

“Communication is the biggest challenge,” Knapp wrote. “There are many retail establishments of all sizes throughout the City, so getting the information about the ban to all of them continues to be a top priority for implementation.

Knapp also said that it is still too early to say if the ban really works, since they are still collecting data. Nonetheless, retail stores and shoppers are feeling positive about the outcome.

Robin Hsiao, a frequent shopper of asian food markets, said she has seen a difference since the ban went into effect.

“Most of the stores have really stopped providing them,” she said. “I’m really glad because this is really good for the environment.”

Chang also said helping the environment is one of the benefits he felt about the ban.

But such differences have made their shopping experience inconvenient. 

“I have to plan my shopping first so I can bring my own bags,” Hsiao said. “I can’t do the shopping spontaneously anymore.” 

She mentioned that she would sometimes want to go shopping, but eventually gave up because she forgot to bring shopping bags.

Lin said that when going shopping, she doesn’t want to buy more reusable bags because she already has too many, but she often forgets to bring them with her.

Lin also said although living without plastic bags is inconvenient, it is the right thing to do.

“I think Philadelphians need more time to get used to this,” Li said. “But we will get there in the end.” 

“This has become the new habit that we have to get used to,” Liu said. She said she would remind every customer to bring their own bags when they want to take out from the restaurant.

As some countries have already implemented their plastic bans many years ago, she said Americans need to catch up with others as well.

“Better late than never,” she said.

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