Swarthmore Borough To Enforce Bag Fee for Businesses

Courtesy to Bonji Onuma

The Swarthmore Borough’s recent ordinance banning single-use products and noncompliant paper bags was met with mixed reactions from the campus community and local residents. Since Jan. 8, 2024, retail establishments have been banned from providing single-use plastic bags and polystyrene products such as styrofoam. Starting on Earth Day, April 22, consumers will instead be incentivized to bring their own reusable bags, and businesses must charge a dime for compliant paper bags containing more than 40% post-consumer recycled content. 

The ordinance lists four reasons for which the ban was implemented: the environmental impacts of single-use products, difficulties of recycling such products, precedents from other local precincts, and its accordance with the Environmental Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution. 

Borough Council Member David Boonin, who chairs the Environment Committee and acts as liaison to the Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), explained the Ready for 100 resolution in 2019, the borough’s initial plan for environmentalism and sustainability and the foundation for the recent ordinance.

“One of the things that was called for is zero waste,” Boonin said. “One of the ways of dealing with that aspirational goal is to take things out of the waste stream, particularly things that are more difficult to handle, process, or biodegrade.”

Darby Creegan ’26, who is involved with the EAC as part of her practicum project for the Our Trash course offered by the environmental studies department, emphasized the importance of trash removal and the ordinance’s role in changing consumer behavior from using plastic bags to reusable bags. 

“My understanding of the ethos of this ordinance is to heavily incentivize customers who are shopping in the Ville to, instead of relying on businesses, bring a reusable bag from home,” Creegan said. “The spirit of the ordinance is to stop random, small, and unnecessary pieces of plastic.”

Associate Professor of Economics Syon Bhanot offered an economic perspective on the ordinance’s effectiveness in changing consumer behavior. He has previously studied a similar ban in Philadelphia.

“When you tell people ‘X’ is free, people gladly use it. They perceive no cost to this even though there is an environmental cost. Making people pay for things that they opt in to doing, that have environmental costs, is a good way to disincentivize those things. People don’t like to pay ten cents for a bag,” Bhanot said.

“Ultimately, the ordinance is a step in the right direction because it’s incentivizing things that are more sustainable,” he added. “That’s the goal of green public policy: incentivizing behaviors that are better for the environment.”

Jacob Herbold ’26, a Swarthmore President’s Sustainability Research Fellow who has worked with the borough and attended several EAC meetings, discussed the negative reception from local businesses regarding the ordinance.

“I don’t have specific involvement in crafting the policy, but I was there to experience the reception to the ordinance. Last week, there was blowback from borough businesses regarding this policy.”

Creegan detailed the frustration business owners expressed during a meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 27 at Occasionally Yours. The meeting consisted of nine businesses, Boonin, as a representative of the council, and the Swarthmore Town Center, a non-profit that manages Swarthmore’s business district. 

“As the floor opened to questions, there was definitely a sense that some merchants were still really frustrated that this ordinance was going into effect,” Creegan said. “It was the tone of discussion one would expect to hear at a Borough Council meeting, where an ordinance like this is still in discussion. I was surprised to hear such tense anger from merchants in a moment where the ordinance has already been passed.”

Boonin stressed that the council made efforts throughout the legislation process to include the opinions of business owners.

“It would be difficult for me to accurately recall all the opportunities for comment when we do any legislation. It’s advertised on our agenda, and we have public input before every session. I know the EAC reached out a lot to merchants.”

Visiting Assistant Professor Jennifer Pfluger of the environmental studies department is an elected voluntary member of the EAC and advises the Borough Council on environmental matters. As one of three EAC representatives, Pfluger attended merchant meetings hosted by the Swarthmore Town Center during the early periods of the legislation. In these meetings, Pfluger gathered opinions from business owners about single-use plastics. She also worked with students to survey the community.

 “Last year, Nathan Nguyen ’25 worked on some aspects of this ordinance,” Pfluger said. “For example, he explored single-use plastics minimization initiatives. He administered surveys, and they were posted on paper, digital, and QR codes. He solicited other green advisors to ask people outside of the Swarthmore Co-Op about the survey. Then, he collated the data and reported the survey results and wrote an article for the local town newspaper, The Swarthmorean.”

Boonin stated that the council also added provisions to the ordinance after receiving opinions from business owners.

“There was concern from merchants who use gift bags. ‘Do we have to charge for the gift bag? May we continue to use our gift bags?’ We said absolutely continue to use your gift bags. We had concerns about using bags to gather small items, such as nuts, bolts at the hardware store, and a slice of pizza. There were concerns raised about items that came into the borough already wrapped, or needed to be wrapped for health and safety reasons. That was all allowed and put on the legislation,” he said.

When asked whether the college was involved with the ordinance, Director of Sustainability Elizabeth Drake said that it was not directly involved in the drafting or passage of the legislation. However, she attributed Nguyen and Pfluger as representatives of the college at the council.

“The ordinance will have a limited impact on campus because we have already moved away from most of the products and practices it covers,” Drake added. “The only impact to our operations that we foresee is the requirement to charge $0.10 for paper bags.”

After the initial meeting with business owners at Occasionally Yours on Tuesday, Creegan handed out flyers that explained the ordinance on Sunday, March 3 and discussed the provisions of the legislation with business owners.

“All the interactions were positive,” Creegan said. “I was anticipating people to have more questions. Some of the merchants were a little bit caught off guard with the ordinance. Businesses have six weeks to make sure they’re in compliance before they start getting fined by the borough.”

Robert Smythe, business owner of local bakery Pastry Pants, mentioned the burden local businesses would bear due to the ordinance. Smythe prefaced that although his bakery would not be as affected by the legislation, as the ordinance grants exceptions for individual product packaging, there are logistical ramifications for most businesses, including sourcing compliant paper bags.

“I’ve looked for bags that are 100% recycled paper, or even 50%, and they’re not readily available,” Smythe said. “I don’t think Pastry Pants by itself can convince some paper bag manufacturer somewhere that they need to take on recycled paper. Until they do, what are we supposed to use?”

Additionally, Smythe feared that the ordinance would antagonize the blowback of local businesses as opposed to green policies.

“I worry that there could be a perception that there’s an antagonistic relationship between business owners in Swarthmore Borough and Borough Council, and the ordinance had to be passed because the store owners in Swarthmore don’t care about the environment and weren’t taking actions on their own,” he stated.

Smythe mentioned that business owners were already implementing environmentally friendly practices prior to the ordinance.

“As a matter of fact, some of the retailers in town have gone above and beyond what the ordinance demands. For example, for the past few years, Occasionally Yours has contracted, at no small expense, to have a composting company come and take away their organic waste.”

Smythe emphasized the personal relationships between business owners and community members.

“When we use the term ‘merchants’, we’re using a term that goes all the way back to the Middle Ages, describing people in velvet robes and gold chains who count up their luxury”, he stated. “I’d like us to think differently when we’re talking about the hard working people who have risked their savings to open a small business. The people who run businesses in Swarthmore are your neighbors, your friends, and your fellow citizens.”

Bhanot offered a different concern regarding the ordinance, underscoring the possibility that other policies, such as a carbon tax, would have less support. 

“My skepticism is that while these policies are good, they are not enough. There’s some work that suggests that when people do small pro-environmental activities, composting and recycling, they become less supportive of bigger policies that would have had a bigger impact, like support for carbon tax,” he said.

“There’s no way to get to a green future that won’t be deeply painful for the collective,” Bhanot added.

When asked about the connection between the ordinance and environmental justice, Pfluger mentioned the incinerator at Chester and multiple landfills around Delaware County.

“Our trash gets incinerated in Chester, and so any reduction we can make to the amount of trash we generate will help people at Chester. Similarly, landfills are equally polluting in different ways, so any amount of trash we can reduce from landfills is also beneficial,” she said.

Additionally, Pfluger highlighted that this ordinance could influence other Pennsylvania boroughs and counties to adopt similar policies, including Alleghany County, where Pittsburgh is located, and Delaware County.  

“The way to inspire action is by working at the local level. The stage where that movement is right now, at least in terms of single-use products ban, is that Swarthmore is a leader in prohibiting styrofoam and polystyrene,” she stated. “When new municipalities and communities are considering these kinds of bans, you look around at all your neighbors. Now that we have a ban prohibiting polystyrene and styrofoam, then other communities are considering implementing similar legislation just based on our model.”

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