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In the vast world of litter, plastic bags have their own niche as a particularly pernicious nuisance.

They are not only unsightly – hanging on trees, blowing across roadways – but they can do actual harm to water systems, sewer drains, even animals.  Worse, they never really go away.

Like diamonds, plastic bags are forever. Unlike most other waste, they never fully biodegrade, morphing into what are called nurdles, which are pesky plastic pellets that can cause big problems, especially among aquatic life.

It’s hard to determine exactly how many plastic bags are out there. The industry rarely releases production and distribution numbers. Estimates of usage range from an average of 314 a person a year up to 1,200 a person. Suffice to say, we use a lot of plastic bags – a whole lot.

And when we do use it’s often a thoughtless exercise in consumption.

Take this recent scene at Bitar’s on 9th and Federal Streets as an example:

Two young men walk up to the counter armed with plastic bags; one is even sporting a backpack.

Sitting a few feet away, Logan Welde begins narrating a play-by-play of the scene.

“Look at these guys,” Welde says.  “They both have plastic bags. They’re about to get another plastic bag…he’s got a plastic bag in his plastic bag and he’s going to put it in his other bag, even though they’ve got a backpack.”

Welde adds:  “I do this all the time. You should see me in the grocery store.”

Forgive Welde for his obsession. Unlike the rest of us, he thinks a lot about plastic bags — and the troubles they cause.

A staff attorney with the Clean Air Council, Welde is the author of legislation that would impose a five-cent fee on plastic and paper bags in Philadelphia. He estimates that between residents and visitors, we go through about one billion plastic bags per year in the city.

“They can be a practical part of society,” concedes Welde. “It’s just they’re so overused that…they’ve become such a big problem.”

Need evidence?

One trip to the Philadelphia Material Recovery Facility on Bleigh Avenue helps prove Welde’s point. This is where the city sorts and recycles all the items we put in those blue recycling bins.

At 10 a.m., Monday through Saturday, the sorting machines are shut down. Four workers, known as screen cleaners, crawl inside and spend 45 minutes using linoleum knifes to manually cut off plastic bag remnants caught in the claw-like equipment. They do it again in the afternoon.

Keep in mind, plastic bags are not supposed to go into those blue bins, but obviously not everyone knows that or, if they do, they do not care.

“They are the worst because they stretch, they melt down a little bit and bind into equipment which is turning at a high speed,” said Jim Horrox, general manager at MRF, while giving a tour of the facility.

Staring up at the mounds of recyclable material the facility handles, stacked up like huge bales of hay, Horrox said, “Imagine how many plastic shopping bags it would take for us to create one of these bales. It creates a difficult economic issue for us and the obstacles far outweigh the benefits.”

Each month between 18,000-20,000 tons of recyclable materials pass through the MRF. Horrox estimates that between 1,000 and 2,000 tons of residues collected are plastic bags.

None of this plastic bag residue can be recycled.  It has to be loaded into the hoppers of trash trucks and hauled to landfills.

More evidence.

Plastic bags have also proven to be a nuisance to the Philadelphia Water Department, which operates a program to skim both the Schuykill and Delaware Rivers for floating litter.

A small pontoon boat skims the Schuylkill once week from April to October, and a large skimming vessel operates on the Schuylkill and Delaware daily from April to October.

In a survey done in 2009, the Water Department found that about 17 percent of the floating litter collected by volume are plastic bags, said Lance Butler, who manages the floatables program.

Butler said that plastic bags are an “albatross,” for the department because of their ability to clog the engines that draw water from the rivers to treatment plants.

“Trying to manually remove this type of debris from the bottom of the river and the shallow littoral fringes is a tedious task,” Butler wrote in an email. “In my humble opinion, this species of trash is one of the worst with respect to ecological integrity, aesthetics and overall river health.”

The plastic bag industry say plastic bags make up a low percentage of total litter, but Welde argues that that’s because they end up in other places like streets and waterways. Plastic bag reduction activists point back to the low recycling rates of plastic bags, which must go to a specific recycling facility to be melted down and made into new plastic bags.

Welde said that only four percent of bags are recycled nationally on an annual basis, and that number is probably smaller in Philadelphia. Phil Rozenski, director of sustainability at Hilex Poly, the country’s largest manufacturer and recycler of plastic bags, said 15 percent of plastic bags are recycled.

Philadelphia instituted a voluntary recycling program inviting stores to put in bins to recycle plastic bags. Welde said that in the beginning of the summer representatives from the Clean Air Council called a number of stores that agreed to participate, “and a lot of them cancelled the program.”

While the rate of recycling plastic bags is low, rate of reuse is said to be high.

Rozenski said Hilex Poly found that 60 to 75 percent of plastic bags are reused. Welde concedes that reuse is high but that citizens “might only reuse 10 percent of their bags, so you still have 90 percent going somewhere else.”

Philadelphia tried to pass plastic bag legislation in 2007 and 2009, but it was met with strong opposition, mostly from plastic bag lobbyists.

Meanwhile, on the state level, state Sen. Daylin Leach (D, Montgomery), has proposed a bill that would impose a two-cent fee on each plastic bag. One penny would go back to the retailer to improve their recycling practices and the other penny would go toward funding state recycling programs. The purpose, Leach said, “is to make people at the point of sale take a moment to think about what they’re doing.”

Welde hopes his proposal will have a similar effect.

“All were doing is breaking the cost out and forcing the conversation at the point of sale,” he said. “We’re forcing the clerk to ask that question: ‘Do you want a bag or not?’”

Welde’s proposal – which has not been introduced or sponsored yet by a City Council member – would impose a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags.

Washington D.C., which implemented a five-cent fee on paper and plastic bags in 2010, has seen an 80 percent reduction in use of bags.

Under Welde’s proposal, a portion of the revenue from the fee would go back to the retailer to cover administrative costs and the rest would go to the Philadelphia School District.