State College

How shoppers, businesses would be affected by a plastic bag fee in Ferguson Township

Next week, Ferguson Township residents will get a glimpse at how a potential fee on plastic bags would impact their community.

Since the supervisors voted 3-1 at their May 20 meeting, staff has been working to draft an ordinance that would impose an impact fee on consumers who use single-use plastic bags.

“It would be a fee that the commercial or retail establishment would tack on at the point of sale (and) transfer that fee to any customer that was getting a single-use plastic bag based on the number of plastic bags that they would be using,” said Dave Pribulka, township manager.

The proposed draft will be presented by Pribulka at the regular township supervisor’s meeting on Monday.

How it would work

Pribulka said the 10 cent-fee would not be “a tax in the true sense of the word.”

“The fee would be, as proposed, retained by the business and not transferred to the township, so it wouldn’t be an additional source of income for the municipality,” Pribulka said.

The proposed ordinance states that all charges will be retained by the store and used to either offset costs associated with complying to the ordinance, offset the actual costs of providing reusable bags to customers or to offset the costs associated with providing educational materials that encourage the use of reusable bags.

Ferguson Township would not be the first community in Pennsylvania to introduce this kind of regulation. In October, Narberth Borough — in Montgomery County — became the first in the state to pass restrictions on plastic bags and straws.

“There’s many examples around the state and around the country of communities and entire states that have implemented similar regulations,” Pribulka said.

If the ordinance is adopted by the township, shoppers will have time to adjust to the new regulations, and businesses will have time to attach the impact fee to billing methods. Pribulka said businesses and customers will be able to see a line on receipts for the cost of the plastic bag.

A store may request exemption from the ordinance for a one year period if the business has a “unique circumstance or situation” where there is no reasonable alternative to single-use bags, if the store would be deprived of a legally-protected right or if additional time is needed in order for the store to draw down on an existing inventory of plastic bags.

As proposed in the ordinance, if a store is found to be in violation of the ordinance, it will be given 30 days to voluntarily comply and will be notified by mail. After that, businesses could be charged $100 per day for not complying.

Potential benefits, consequences

Prior to the May meeting, over 20 Penn State law students examined the topic for the township. Pribulka said the students reached out to “stakeholders on all sides of the issue” where they engaged in a dialogue about their thoughts and concerns on a proposed plastic bag ordinance.

While most shoppers were supportive of the ordinance, the students also found that stores like Giant and Weis Markets have plastic bag drop-off locations where customers may return plastic bags to be reused or recycled by the store. Retailers were also concerned with how to effectively serve customers while also making a profit.

“What we’ve heard from the community has been support in general for the interest in reduction for plastic bag waste and plastic waste overall,” Pribulka said.

Last fall, Ferguson Township resident Pam Steckler circulated a petition asking residents to show their support for a 25 cent fee for every plastic bag used at the point of purchase. Of that fee, 10 cents would be paid to the municipality and used for sustainable initiatives. The remaining 15 cents would be kept by the business and used to cover costs of collection and disbursement. Steckler said 77 Ferguson Township residents and 144 State College Borough residents signed the petition.

In order to cut down on plastic waste deposited in the world’s oceans and landfills, Steckler wants such an ordinance to be adopted by all municipalities. She thinks consumers will alter their behaviors in order to not pay the additional fee, and businesses will find ways to use the ordinance to their advantage.

“(It’s a) win-win because (businesses) don’t have to supply the plastic bag, and they can sell you a really nice cloth one with their logo on it,” Steckler said.

If Ferguson Township’s ordinance is approved and put into effect, Pribulka said the impacts would be felt by both customers and businesses.

“The behavior of a consumer may change based on what the business does, so if a business is imposing an impact fee for individual customers using single-use plastic bags, they may be drawn to that business if it’s something that they are passionate about,” Pribulka said. “They may go to a different business if it’s a cost they want to avoid. They may be encouraged to use reusable bags.”

One concern is with grocery stores like Giant and Weis Markets that have stores in different areas of the county, Pribulka said. Because businesses in Ferguson Township would have to comply with the ordinance, inconsistencies would be created throughout municipalities where some stores have the fee and others do not.

Through interviews, students were able to speak with management staff from Giant. Since grocery store chains have locations throughout the county, staff was concerned about shoppers leaving the township to shop at other locations.

After hearing feedback from grocery store management, Pribulka said staff is also considering looking at the issue from a regional perspective in order to alleviate spillover effects.

Right now, the proposed ordinance would only pertain to businesses in Ferguson Township; however, if other Centre County townships were to adopt its legislation, more than just restaurants and grocery stores would feel its impact.

Hilex Poly, a Milesburg plastic bag supplier owned by Novolex, supplies plastic bags for businesses throughout Centre County and employs county residents. Although the company makes and sells plastic products, its corporate office has worked to promote sustainable practices.

Bill Zajac, plant manager of Novolex Milesburg, said the company “strongly supports reducing waste and litter” but suggested implementing a fee is not the immediate way to promote better consumer habits.

“Our Milesburg plant has been an excellent employer and good corporate citizen in Centre County for many years,” Zajac said in an email statement. “We would welcome a conversation with the board of supervisors that focuses on raising consumer awareness to the reusability and recyclability of plastic bags instead of imposing taxes that could have unintended consequences on manufacturing jobs and our community in Centre County.”

On the state level, Pennsylvania lawmakers recently proposed legislation that would temporarily block any tax or ban on the sale or distribution of plastic bags.

Pribulka plans to present the ordinance draft as planned but will mention the potential influence of state legislation. Once the draft is presented and commented on, Pribulka will look to the supervisors on whether to pause the process or proceed.

With the ordinance still in its early planning stages, Pribulka said there will be opportunities for community members and business owners to ask questions, voice concerns and share feedback.

Depending on community feedback and any edits to the proposed ordinance, Pribulka said the fee could be put into effect as early as next fall.