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Philly’s top environmental stories of 2021

Philly’s top environmental stories of 2021

A pedestrian carries a plastic bag in Philadelphia

Plastic bags are out, but paper and reusables remain in

Philadelphia’s plastic bag ban was originally passed by the City Council in 2019. It finally came into effect in October 2021.

It bans single use plastic bags. The exceptions are bags used in grocery stores for produce and meat.

However, many businesses still provide plastic bags at check-out. PennEnvironment conducted a survey of 50 businesses and found that more than half gave out plastic bags at checkout. In violation of the banThe city has issued dozens warnings to businesses that they are out of line, based on complaints received from residents.

There’s been pushback, and that is normal and expected because whenever there’s something new and there’s something different, there’s always that resistance, Gabriel Paez said. But I believe this will help the city become cleaner in the long-term.

The city uses approximately 1 billion plastic bags annually. They litter the streets and waterways, and tangle up recycling centers.

A pedestrian carries a plastic bag in Philadelphia
A pedestrian carries a bag of plastic in Philadelphia, Wednesday March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

What’s next?

To avoid penalties, Philadelphia businesses will have to stop using single-use plastic bags by April 1, 2022.

We’re really hopeful that noncompliance will be the exception, not the rule, said city spokesperson Karen Guss.

The Kenney administration supports legislation that clarifies that single-use bags cannot be thicker than 2.25 mils. City Councilmember Mark Squilla introduced in October a bill that would have removed a maximum thickness of 2.25 millimeters from the bills definition for single-use plastic bags. The LegislationNext year, we could be moving forward.

Preparing the city’s gas utility for a brand new reality

Philadelphia Gas Works is a city-owned gas utility that made small steps towards a lower-carbon future in this year.

The much-anticipated PGW Business Diversification StudyDec. It seeks to address the contradiction between PGW ownership and carbon neutrality goals.

The company is the largest municipally-owned gas utility in the United States. It supplies nearly a quarter the country’s carbon footprint. Although PGW representatives claim that the company is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a WHYY News investigation revealed that PGW executives helped draft legislation that could make it easier for the city to electrify.

Diversification studies looked at several options for PGW, including electrifying buildings and supplying geothermal power, weatherizing buildings, and capturing gas from landfills or sewers to make energy. It also pointed out that the utility’s complicated regulatory structure was a barrier to PGW’s transformation. PGW’s path to carbon neutrality could be laden by stranded assets and high upfront investments as well as possible rate increases.

Philadelphia Gas Works offices located on Broad Street, South Philadelphia (Nathaniel Hamilton at WHYY).

What’s next?

More studies. The report, which was released this month, does not propose a single path forward in PGW. However, it recommends pilot projects exploring decarbonized, weatherization, or geothermal energy, the path that advocates favor.

Zerbo with the Clean Air Council stated that PGWs future remains a big conversation.

Derek Green, a City Councilmember and president of the Philadelphia Gas Commission has stated that he plans to hold public hearings about the diversification study in City Council early in 2022.

Commission on environmental justice

The city established a commission to make recommendations for the mayor, City Council, as well as city agencies, regarding environmental justice issues.

It’s the first time in Philadelphia’s history that we’ve ever seen anything like this, so we’re really excited about it, said Shabazz, with the Overbrook Environmental Education Center.

The group will include 10 to 15 members, who are expected to serve two year terms. Officials from the city say they will give preference to residents of Philadelphia who have experienced environmental injustices, such as those living in areas that are prone to flooding or high heat.

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The cautionary tale is that you don’t want the stronger, more influential stakeholders to drive the agenda, Shabazz said. Industry and academia have been studying these topics for years, and have developed perspectives as a result. This commission should reflect the vision and experiences of citizens.

Person observes intense flooding in Philadelphia
Race Street resident near the Schuylkill River climbs onto his porch to assess the rising water. The river crested one day after torrential rains caused by Hurricane Ida. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

What’s next?

Knapp, of Knapp’s Office of Sustainability, stated that the application period for the commission has ended and that the city plans to announce who was selected in February. They will likely start engaging the public in the spring.

The other green: Law money for infrastructure

President Biden signed the infrastructure bill into law in November. It includes money for water quality and transportation. It also includes a record amount of investment in climate resilience.

Eastwick residents want the federal money to be used to fund a land swap that would allow flood-prone residents to move to safer areas within the neighborhood.

Federal officials have already committed some infrastructure money to Eastwick. It will accelerate cleanup of an old landfill Superfund site by approximately one year.

Amtrak train departs 30th Street Station, moving parallel to motor vehicles on Interstate 76 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

What’s next?

Knapp said that officials in the city are waiting to learn more about specific pots and when they will be made available to them. The city is looking for funding for weatherization, electric cars, flood and heat mitigation, building and energy codes, and wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

We’re going through the infrastructure bill with a fine-tooth comb to look at all the different programs that are going to be receiving money and all the different competitive programs to prepare ourselves, she said. But we don’t really know the full details of anything until it comes out.

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