WEST CHESTER (July 18, 2019) –West Chester Borough Council voted 4-3 to ban single-use plastic bags and disposable plastic straws on Wednesday evening.
The ban is set to take effect in January, however, its future is still in doubt as it may violate a recently-passed state law. As part of this year’s state budget, the Pennsylvania legislature enacted, and the governor signed a provision prohibiting municipal bans or taxes on plastic bags or packaging for one year while legislative agencies study the economic and environmental impact.
Borough Council’s narrow vote came before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 residents and after more than two hours of debate and public comment even as severe thunderstorms swept through the region.
Several council members initially expressed concern about violating the state law and potentially opening themselves up to personal liability. But rousing comments from state Senator Andy Dinniman and the students from the West Chester Friends School, who initiated the idea for the ban, energized the audience and ultimately encouraged council to move forward with the ordinance.
“It is incumbent upon council to resist and if you’re going to resist, resist completely,” Dinniman said. “This is a clear overreach of local control. And the unfortunate reality is those who passed this prohibition are not representing you or the people of West Chester. They’re representing the corporate interests who give them campaign money.”
He also encouraged supporters of the plastic bag ban to make their voices heard in Harrisburg while pledging to work with state Representatives Carolyn Comitta and Danielle Friel-Otten to try to overturn the prohibition.
Kiran Schatz, a student at the West Chester Friends School and part of the group that proposed the ban, said it was a small step but one that could end up making a big impact.
“This is proof that we’re finally doing something,” Schatz said. “If one town can do it then maybe the entire county can do it. If a county can do it, then maybe the whole state can do it. If states can do it, then maybe, just maybe the entire nation can do it.”
Schatz was joined by several students from the school, including Auden Vosburgh, William Bradley, Paige Fisher, and Isaac Harte, who also serves as Earth Uprising Philadelphia Head Coordinator. The group first brought the idea to borough council last year in a proposal that Councilman Bernie Flynn called a “Ph.D-level presentation that woke a lot of people up.”
Still most of council, including Flynn, Michael Galey, Denise Polk, Michael Stefano, and Donald Braceland, initially expressed concerns about the potential consequences of passing an ordinance that violates state law.
“Absent that, this probably would have passed unanimously,” Galey said.
Braceland expressed frustration with the situation at the state level, which he attributed to state Senate Majority Leader Jay Corman.
“One thing that really annoys me is that all of this is just because of one man in Harrisburg who has a plastics manufacturer in his district,” he said.
Councilman Bill Scott called on council to pass the ordinance as is, or at least consider passing an amended version that takes effect after the state’s reports are issued and the prohibition on bans has elapsed.
“I think any good lawyers will tell you that there’s a substantial chance that doing what I’m advising wouldn’t be a violation. And I’m not concerned about personal liability. Municipal bodies do all kinds of things like that all the time,” Scott said. “So, for the seals and turtles, let’s pass it, one way or another, tonight.”
Stefano said that while environmental problems with plastics were growing, the borough’s best bet was likely to band together with other municipalities and bring a lawsuit challenging the state’s prohibition on bans.
His comments were echoed by Council President Diane LeBold, who said, “I think our position is stronger as a plaintiff – gaining support from others across the state – then as a defendant standing alone.”
Others, including Comitta, Friel-Otten, and West Chester Mayor Diane Herrin, noted that a lawsuit could take years and that community members could organize to effectuate the ban on a voluntary basis now.
“The fact is my assets and your assets are already at risk,” Herrin said, calling for the ordinance to be passed with an effective date in the new year. “We can’t have an economy if we don’t have an environment.”
The measure passed with council members Scott, Braceland, Polk and Flynn voting in favor. LeBold, Galley, and Stefano voted no.