Paper or drastic?

Spring rains are quickly filling the gutters of many Chicago neighborhoods, and the excess plastic bags that have escaped the city’s recycling program often litter and clog drains. To address the related environmental concerns, aldermen Joe Moreno (1st Ward) and George Cardenas (12th Ward) have backed a ban on plastic bags.

The bill would prohibit all city retailers from distributing plastic bags, requiring them to instead offer customers paper or compostable bags. Moreno argued that plastic bags clog drains, clutter neighborhoods and endanger wildlife, and banning them would aid environmental conservation efforts. But outlawing plastic bags is impractical and infringes on the private sector’s rights to determine business practices.

Reducing plastic use is paramount to preserving the environment, but legislating it is unreasonable. Though some businesses support the ban on environmental grounds, it would be expensive for smaller grocers to implement because paper bags cost more than plastic. Banning plastic bags would also create a stronger demand for paper products and possibly encourage deforestation.

Chicago is following in the non-carbon footprints of other major cities that have implemented similar restrictions. Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have passed a plastic bag tax. L.A. officials said the 10-cent tax per bag has helped reduce plastic bag use, but a Jan. 9 Washington Post analysis of Washington, D.C., found its 5-cent tax does not significantly impact consumer behavior. Chicago’s all-out ban fails to implement a similar tax that could at least allow the city to profit from the bag ban.

The Chicago government has a history of trying to legislate social change. By regulating electronic cigarettes earlier this year, attempting to ban energy drinks last year and hiking cigarette taxes last fall, the City Council has been playing nanny to regulate citizens’ behavior. The government should not mandate social actions. Instead, constituents should push for something because they want it, not because the politicians say so. The government may have the right to determine environmental standards, as in the case of the petroleum coke slag along the Calumet River, but the plastic bag ban flirts with the line between responsible policymaking and micromanaging.

Aldermen should invest some of their committee funds into advertising campaigns about the damage of excess plastic use instead of forcing people to make environmentally conscious choices. Many people may be unaware of the dangers of plastic in drains and the lake, so if the aldermen want public support, they should attempt to educate their constituents.

Chicagoans should take note of their personal plastic bag use and make efforts to be more environmentally friendly by using paper or canvas bags. Even if Moreno and Cardenas mean well, they must weigh the costs of enforcing the ban versus educating people who may choose to voluntarily reduce plastic consumption. A citywide plastic bag ban is within the government’s rights, but it is impractical to implement and does not ensure that plastic will disappear from Chicago’s drains.