Aldermen push for plastic bag ban

By Metro Editor

The choice between paper and plastic could be a distant memory for Chicago shoppers if a proposal to ban plastic bags continues to gain momentum among aldermen.

The proposal, introduced March 5 by Alderman Proco Joe Moreno (1st Ward), would ban plastic bags in retail stores to reduce waste in landfills and the Great Lakes, according to the ordinance. However, the legislation would require retailers to offer only paper or reusable bags, raising concerns about the potential impact on small businesses that might not be able to afford the more expensive plastic alternatives.

The Committee on Health and Environmental Protection will vote on the ordinance in April. If passed, it will be presented to the City Council for a vote, said Matthew Bailey, director of legislative affairs and communications for Moreno’s office. Alderman George Cardenas (12th Ward), chairman of the committee, is a sponsor of the legislation.

“The ordinance is a big step in the right direction,” said Mitch McNeil, vice chair of the Chicago chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization that is working with Moreno to get the ordinance passed. “[Plastic bags] go into the landfills or the storm sewers and you don’t need to go too far to see it littering the landscape, especially in unincorporated areas where no one is paid to pick up litter. It just really collects.”

The ordinance has attracted support for its environmental benefits, but some worry that requiring small businesses to stock only the paper bags, which are more costly than plastic bags, will negatively affect businesses without effectively decreasing litter.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association opposes the ordinance because it does not require customers to pay a fee for paper bags, said Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel at the IRMA. She said charging for paper bags effectively shifts consumer behavior to reusable bags.

“Mandating the fee on single-use bags gives the consumer the opportunity to say, ‘I don’t want to be charged this fee. I’ll just bring my bag,’” Triche said. “If you don’t mandate the fee, your smaller grocers have fewer resources to absorb anything and they’re going to raise the price of consumer goods.”

Triche said if Chicago is serious about eliminating plastic bag waste, aldermen should increase public awareness about customers recycling plastic bags at local grocery stores. Most grocers have a bin where customers can discard plastic bags, and the retailer must report the number of plastic bags they have acquired to the city, she said. However, she said she does not oppose banning plastic bags because they do contribute to litter and are an issue in landfills.

McNeil said previous drafts of the ordinance required customers to pay a fee for paper bags, but it was not popular among the public or aldermen. The most recent draft does not require a bag fee because it oversteps the government’s role in private businesses, Bailey said. Moreno has been pushing for a plastic bag ban since 2011 and has drafted various ordinances, but none have received Cardenas approval until now, Bailey said.

“If the retailers want to impose a cost on the customer, that’s on them,” Bailey said. “We’re not going to be giving them the convenience of being the big bad government boogeyman. We believe in the free market.”

McNeil said he is hopeful the ordinance will pass, but the city needs to raise more awareness of the environmental harm of plastic and paper bags.

If passed, Chicago would be one of more than 140 U.S. cities to ban plastic bags. In 2007, San Francisco was the first city to ban them. To encourage use of reusable bags, the city began charging a 10-cent fee for paper bags, said Guillermo Rodriguez, communications director for the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Despite concerns from retailers, San Francisco businesses have not suffered as a result, Rodriguez said. Initially, retail owners were worried that customers would cross city limits to avoid the charge, but that never appeared to be a problem, Rodriguez said, adding that most of the surrounding counties also have bans on plastic bags, so customers would have to drive very far to avoid the 10-cent fee.

“We’re seeing changes in behavior where folks are bringing their own bag or refusing a bag,” Rodriguez said. “All of the horror stories we thought we were going to see and hear never manifested, and frankly, the cost to businesses hasn’t been a big issue.”

Triche said Chicago should look to cities like San Francisco to revise its ordinance because the current draft would likely do more harm than good. She said consumers would opt for paper bags, which can still contribute to litter.

San Francisco also launched an awareness campaign, providing signage to retailers about the ban, so the responsibility of raising awareness fell on the government rather than business owners, Rodriguez said. The paper bag fee appears in a separate section on a customer’s receipt, indicating that it is mandated by the city and not the business owner, he said.

“If you want to get rid of litter, if you want to get [plastic] out of landfills, do something that actually changes behavior,” Triche said. “This ordinance does not do that. You’re asking the retail community … to come out of their pockets for something that doesn’t even [reduce litter]. We’re just saying enough is enough.”