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Pa. plastic bag bans are taking root. Do they work?

Plus, Pa.'s broken 'compassionate release' law, by the numbers.


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April 5, 2022
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Plastic policies, life in prison, failed override, slow clemency, Sandusky appeals, and Pa. churches face wartime tensions. It's Tuesday.
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Philadelphia's ban on single-use plastic bags is now in full effect after a pandemic-related delay, WHYY reports, with fines of $150 and up facing offending businesses and court action possible for repeat violations. 

More Pennsylvania municipalities are likely to follow suit now that a statewide rule barring such local regulations is out of the way.  

Take Pittsburgh, for example. Leaders there are currently fine-tuning a plastic bag ban with plans to move on the measure later this year.  

"The actions of elected and other leaders today will have long-standing ramifications for the children of the 21st century and generations to come," City Council member Erika Strassburger said in November.  

The question then is: Do bag bans actually work? 

THE CONTEXT: Philly's ban went into effect last year, but related penalties were held off until now. The difference that makes is yet to be seen. 

According to The Inquirer, representatives from the nonprofit advocacy group PennEnvironment visited more than 50 stores to see if they were complying with the ban before penalties took hold. More than half weren't.

Some local businesses have since told the paper that the baseline costs of compliance — namely offering the kinds of bags now allowed — will be felt by them and passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. 

But environmental advocates say the case for banning the bags is painfully clear on the streets of Philadelphia, where nearly a billion plastic bags are used every year — each believed to take hundreds of years to degrade. 

Bag bans have proven effective elsewhere. In California, the first state to adopt one, a 70% drop in overall plastic bag litter on the state's beaches was reported roughly one year later. Still, loopholes remained.

Skeptics have warned of unintended consequences that might come with using more paper or with consumers replacing the grocery bags they once kept to line small trash cans at home, for example, with fresh plastic.

Backers concede the bans aren't perfect but rather a necessary policy choice to limit pollution. More Pennsylvania cities and boroughs, including Philadelphia, West Chester, and Narberth, are in agreement.

"I would rather win this petition on its merits rather than on a technicality."

Beth Ann Rosica, of Back to School PA, on the reinstatement of five West Chester school board members recently ousted by a judge over mask rules

Snowdrops in Delaware County, via Suzanne S. Send us your Pennsylvania gems, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
BY THE NUMBERS: "Compassionate release" rules for imprisoned people in Pennsylvania are so narrowly written that few people ever qualify — all as reform efforts drag on and costs to taxpayers mount. Spotlight PA talked to 28 people serving life in prison to understand what it looks like to wait for change while growing older behind bars. Here are some of the most important numbers from that reporting.

STILL STANDING: The Wolf administration's plan to impose a carbon fee on fossil fuel-fired power plants has survived a last-ditch override attempt by the state's GOP-led General Assembly. Capital-Star reports the state Senate failed to reach a two-thirds threshold to block the regulation, leaving the centerpiece of the governor's climate change agenda in tact, though legal challenges are still a possibility.

SLOW SYSTEM: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is calling for a faster way to process clemency applications from people imprisoned by Pennsylvania. Fetterman, who is running for U.S. Senate and chairs the state's Board of Pardons, says a new online system could cut turnaround times for related applications to a year or less. The current paper-based system often takes several years, via the AP.

EARMARKS UP: Pennsylvania federal lawmakers celebrated the return of earmarks by securing nearly $200 million worth in a spending bill since signed into law. Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey obtained $60.5 million, while Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright of NEPA led the congressional delegation with $19.6 million, followed by GOP Rep. Dan Meuser of Berwick with $14 million. Rep. Mike Kelly of Butler voted against the spending bills and still claims $8.5 million.

ON APPEAL: Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is again trying to get his child sex abuse conviction vacated, citing mistakes made by his trial lawyers. Sandusky's conviction was upheld once before. He's now appealing to a higher court and claiming ineffective counsel and that his due process rights were violated when the trial judge refused to grant a delay, via PennLive.
OPEN CONNECTOR: The State College Area Connector project could cost more than $800 million and wipe out several farms and homes if PennDOT uses the U.S. Route 322 corridor, Centre Daily Times reports. Public meetings are being held in Boalsburg tonight and Centre Hall tomorrow.

STAR POWER: Not only was she nominated for two Grammys this year, Michelle Zauner of Philly band Japanese Breakfast is also an author whose best-selling memoir is being turned into a film, via Vanity Fair. Congrats to Philly's Questlove and Jazmine Sullivan on their Grammy wins.

NEXT DOOR: Two century-old churches — one Russian and one Ukrainian — sit side-by-side in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. The Wall Street Journal reports they're now navigating and defusing wartime tensions together

IN MEMORIAM: Estelle Harris, a Tarentum native best known for playing George Costanza's mother on Seinfeld, died on Saturday at the age of 93. Harris' father owned a candy store in the borough outside Pittsburgh.

GONE TOO SOON: In the end, "Boner 4ever" wasn't meant to be. The Philadelphia building showcasing those words in a massive scrawl of graffiti is set to be redeveloped. Philly Mag has details on the project.
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