by Jessica Bellwoar, Cyndi Rickards and Jesse Lytle
When people work together, we can make real progress for our environment. Narberth Borough in Montgomery County took that sentiment to heart in 2018 when it became the first municipality in Pennsylvania to pass an ordinance aiming to reduce single-use plastic pollution.
The quaint Main Line town home to nearly 5,000 residents is a tight-knit community of families and locally-owned businesses. Like many other municipalities around the state, Narberth has been dealing with increasing volumes of solid waste, litter in their neighborhoods and plastic pollution in local streams like Indian Creek.
Single-use plastic pollution is a major component of our throwaway society and our state’s growing waste crisis. Every day, Americans throw away more than 70 million polystyrene cups, 300 million single-use plastic bags and nearly 170 million plastic straws. If that single-use waste doesn’t speak volumes to you, then consider the fact that Pennsylvania is the number one importer of trash in the nation.
Our beautiful, historic cities and environmental sanctuaries around the state are littered with piles of single-use plastic bags, straws, bottles, packaging and more. We spend nearly $10 million taxpayer dollars annually cleaning up roadside litter alone. What’s the true cost of cleaning-up all our neighborhoods, waterways and parks? Much higher.
Aside from the costs associated with cleanup, littering and illegal dumping is a blight on our communities, lowering the quality of life, inhibiting economic development and threatening our wildlife and precious ecosystems. This plastic pollution also makes its way back up the food chain into our grocery stores and onto our dinner tables, with microplastic particles now commonly found in food products even as seemingly safe as table salt and bottled water.
Narberth’s ordinance went into effect April this year and places a 10-cent fee on single-use plastic bags and makes single-use plastic straws available only to individuals who need them.
Narberth residents celebrated the ordinance when it was approved and commended their local government for stepping up for our environment. Narberth Borough Council worked vigorously alongside grassroots groups like Narberth 2050 and Girl Scout Troop 7886, Narberth Civic Association, local artists and the Montgomery County Recycling Manager to get their ordinance passed in eight short months.
Defying common assumptions, local businesses supported Narberth’s initiative as well, and the ordinance was met with minimal concern. In fact, many businesses took the opportunity to move faster and farther than the ordinance required, for example by voluntarily shifting to biodegradable take-out containers. The owners of the local American Family Market, who said they were “inspired by the initiative to recycle, repurpose and preserve our community here in Narberth,” added a new recycling station and now offer reusable bags to their customers.
As more Pennsylvanians demand action on single-use plastics, and as environmental degradation takes a visible toll on communities, more businesses and restaurants are finding value in listening to their fellow citizens and joining the movement to infuse environmental responsibility into their business practices.
Earlier this year the nation’s largest grocery store, Kroger, announced it would eliminate single-use plastic bags from its stores by 2025.
Many other municipalities around the Commonwealth have been looking to follow Narberth’s lead to safeguard their communities from plastic pollution. So it was chilling when the Pennsylvania legislature folded a moratorium on such environmental protections into the state budget in June. While Narberth’s existing ordinance will be unaffected, citizens and communities across Pennsylvania should be alarmed that elected officials would so cavalierly block local progress on this pressing challenge. Harrisburg’s actions stand in stark contrast to our neighbors in New York state, who just banned plastic bags statewide, and in New Jersey, where local action is leading the way on eliminating plastic bags, straws and foam.
Despite Pennsylvania’s one-year prohibition, last week West Chester Borough City Council passed their own ordinance banning single-use plastic bags and straws. The Council’s reasons were clear: we can’t wait any longer to clean-up our streets and put communities and wildlife over waste.
Pennsylvanians understand all too well what’s at stake. It’s inspiring to see local governments, businesses, faith groups and educational institutions moving the ball forward on environmental progress. We absolutely need these actions to shift our throw-away culture toward a lifestyle that will preserve our Commonwealth for our children and grandchildren. Yet it’s not enough.
Today, Pennsylvania has 50 operating landfills that are eyesores for local communities that also suffer their stench; the state’s six incinerators spew air pollutants that threaten residents living near them. Whether it’s air pollution or plastic pollution, we know pollutants and plastics travel across townships and municipalities, negatively affecting all Pennsylvania and neighboring states.
We need state-level policy that addresses these externalized costs if we are going to address our waste crisis and shift Pennsylvania to Zero Waste.
PennEnvironment and a team of state representatives recently introduced Zero Waste PA, a package of 13 bills that would begin to shift us away from a throw-away society. These bills would tackle the most insidious forms of single-use plastic waste, improve and expand upon recycling, create statewide composting and address electronic waste.
We celebrate Narberth’s and West Chester’s achievements and ask citizens to call on their state legislators to support Zero Waste PA to make it easier and more effective for all of us to reduce, reuse and recycle.
Jessica Bellwoar is a Conservation Associate with PennEnvironment, Cyndi Rickards is a member of the Narberth Borough Council and Jesse Lytle is the chair of the Narberth Environmental Advisory Council.