Daniel Rubin | Not in the bag: Two bills target plastic carriers

Frank DiCicco credits his mother, the street sweeper, for Philadelphia's latest green legislation, which would ban supermarkets from bagging groceries in plastic.

"I've always had a thing about trash - my mother made me that way," the councilman says. "It says a lot about who we are as a society, and we are a throwaway society."

A shredded plastic bag stuck in a tree - this one on North 15th Street - is a common sight around the city, one that Councilman Frank DiCicco would like to eliminate.

It wasn't just the white plastic bags parachuting through the neighborhoods that made him mad. It's what happens to those bags when they get to the landfill. Nothing.

"They don't decompose for hundreds of years, and some say thousands of years," he says. "One issue we can all agree on is the environment."

Or so we'd think.

With DiCicco's legislation, and a sister bill also introduced last week by Jim Kenney that would ban polystyrene packaging (think: Styrofoam cups and take-out containers), I sought a minority viewpoint.

Ever see Thank You for Smoking?

Meet the Nick Naylor of plastics.


Spin city

Mike Levy works for an organization called the American Chemical Council, based in Arlington, Va. He's director of its Plastics Food Service Packaging Group, and sees a few problems with Philadelphia's "well-meaning" legislation, which is based on a San Francisco law.

Among his arguments:

No one can know that plastic sticks around for hundreds or thousands of years. "Plastic," he says, "was only invented 60 years ago."

Environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic don't actually decompose, either.

Paper weighs more, so landfills would be exhausted faster.

It's actually good to have solid stuff like plastic in landfills because that makes a firmer foundation when the site is leveled and developed.

And - my favorite - what we really need to do is educate people to clean up after themselves. Particularly foreigners.

"We are a melting pot," Levy says. "We have a lot of cultures who are not used to disposing of anything."

Councilman Kenney wants to take a whack at that last one:

"I can tell him for sure the trash on the street comes from the native-born Philadelphians, not the newcomers."



City Council certainly has been looking out for us lately, between the indoor-smoking ban and the moves against foie gas and trans-fat and for menus that list a dish's nutritional value.

Those are all imports from other cities, and there's nothing wrong with borrowing a good idea. As in other municipalities, the plastic bag legislation exempts smaller grocers - ones with less than $2 million in gross sales - and pharmacies with fewer than five city locations. The rest would have to use recyclable paper or reusable or compostable bags.

As for Styrofoam-like products, merchants could still use them if the alternative costs 10 percent more or greater. Kenney says that's not so broad a loophole, since companies have begun making eco-friendly alternatives that cost the same as the polystyrene ones.

"If the city's action can force industries to change what they produce, it's a great thing," he says.

So far, Kenney and DiCicco report no resistance to their proposals. It might be early.

After my call to Levy, I started hearing from all sorts of groups new to my Rolodex - the Orwellian-sounding Progressive Bag Alliance (they're for recycling plastic) and the Alliance for Foam Packaging Recyclers (they're for reusing polystyrene containers).

Then Levy passed along an article from the streets of San Francisco, where a reporter interviewed lunchers at a carved-sandwich joint - all of them disheartened to discover their biodegradable take-out boxes were starting to biodegrade on their laps.

I predict a food fight.


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com. Read his work at http://go.philly.com/danrubin.