City approves partial ban on plastic bags

Written By Fran Spielman Posted: 04/30/2014, 04:33pm

The ubiquitous question “Paper or plastic?” is on its way out in the checkout line at many Chicago stores — and consumers will be forced to change their shopping habits because of it.

The Chicago City Council made certain of it Wednesday by imposing a partial ban on plastic bags, which stick in trees and fences, jam landfills and waterways and are blamed for the death of birds and marine animals.

The vote was 36-10.

After the vote, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the partial ban yet another piece of a larger environmental action plan.


It also includes citywide recycling, elimination of Chicago’s two coal-fired power plants, cleaning up the Chicago River and transforming the riverwalk into an enticing public space. 


“We have a singular focus, which is the environment. You can’t be a city in the garden and have a set of policies that hurt the environment. That’s our motto,” the mayor said.

RELATED: Plastic bag ordinance needs a rewrite

Chicago aldermen didn’t go all the way down the environmental trail blazed by San Francisco.

They exempted small mom-and-pop retailers least able to absorb the financial hit for paper bags, which cost three times as much as plastic. Aldermen also excused all Chicago restaurants as well as “non-franchise” independent stores with a square footage under 10,000 feet.

Stores with less than 10,000 square feet would be included only if they’re part of a chain like 7-Eleven that includes three or more stores.

Compliance deadlines would depend on the size of the store. If they’re bigger than 10,000 square feet, the deadline would be Aug. 1, 2015. If they’re 10,000 square feet or less, they would have until Aug. 1, 2016, to get in line.

Fines would range from $300 to $500 for each offense. All retailers covered “shall provide reusable bags, recyclable paper bags or any combination thereof” to customers” to be used to “carry away goods from the point of sale,” the ordinance states.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said she voted against the partial ban because she’s concerned the added cost of paper will make it even more difficult to attract a new grocery store to fill the space vacated by Dominick’s in her South Side ward, the only one in the city that hasn’t found a replacement.

“We eat fresh meat and produce in South Shore and we can choose who we give our dollars to. Why would I support an ordinance that limits the types of food choices I get to make based on the bag I choose?” Hairston said.

“If I voted for this ordinance, where would I bring my bags to shop in my community? Nowhere. I’m a sitting alderman and I’m watching my community go to hell in a handbasket. Grocers are already reluctant to come to my community, and we’re gonna give them more reason by banning plastic bags.”

Noting that South Shore residents “have to spend bus fare to get to the nearest grocer,” Hairston said, “We all know this would not be tolerated” outside the African-American community.

“I’m tired of focusing on things that hurt people instead of helping people. Let’s level the playing field so no community does without. Then we can regulate the type of bags they use,” she said.

Ald. Nick Sposato (36th), who also voted against the ordinance, said  he is convinced that the patial ban will “cost jobs — maybe not retail jobs, but manufacturing jobs.” 

Sposato noted that 90 percent of plastic bags have “multiple uses,” not the least of which is “picking up dog waste.”


“We should not be passing the cost [of paper bags] on to our businesses and consumers,” he said.


Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st) closed the debate by debunking what he called the myth that banning plastic bags would cost the city jobs.

“There is no evidence — zero — that this hurts business,” Moreno said, pointing to Aldi’s, Costco and Trader Joe’s as evidence of stores that are “succeeding today” after banning plastic bags.


“We’re not taking a small step We’re taking a large step” toward cleaning up the environment and ridding the city of three billion plastic bags used by Chicagoans each year, less than 10 percent of which are returned for recycling.

The other “no” votes were cast by Aldermen Eugene Sawyer (6th); Anthony Beale (9th); Lona Lane (18th); Ariel Reboyras (30th); Scott Waguespack (32nd); Emma Mitts (37th) and Brendan Reilly (42nd).

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association has argued that there are so many exemptions the environmental impact will be small but the burden on impacted retailers and their customers will be big.

Tanya Triche, the association’s vice president and general counsel, has predicted everything from price increases and job cuts to reduced hours for workers as retailers grapple with the added cost of paper bags.

“The City Council has approved an ordinance that will raise the cost of doing business in Chicago and [do] nothing for the environment. While banning plastic bags sounds like a chance to help the environment, a ban alone doesn’t move people to bring their own bags to stores leaving the city with the same litter and landfill problem that it has today,” Triche was quoted as saying in statement after the vote.

Merchants pushed hard for a 10-cent tax on paper bags to allow retailers to recoup their costs and give consumers an incentive to bring reusable bags on shopping trips.

But Emanuel, Moreno and Health and Environmental Protection Committee Chairman Ald. George Cardenas (12th) stood their ground against the tax idea.

They argued that there’s nothing stopping retailers from imposing the tax, but the City Council is not about to do it for them and wear the jacket for nickel-and-diming Chicagoans even they already are.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, a lobbying group for plastic bag manufacturers and recyclers, has denounced the partial ban as an undue burden on big-box retailers and grocers.

“The plastic bag industry remains opposed to any bag ban proposal in Chicago. This latest version will do nothing to reduce litter or waste but it does continue to threaten the jobs of thousands of Illinois bag manufacturing workers and impose significant additional cost on big box retailers who seek to do business in the city of Chicago,” Executive Director Lee Califf has said.

“At a time when significant retailers have left the city and real estate citywide remains vacant, this ban would be detrimental to Chicago’s economic vitality.”

Still, the watered-down ordinance even drew support from Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who just a month ago, was the only alderman dead-set against banning plastic bags.

O’Shea argued then that his border ward was “already hemorrhaging business” to the suburbs of Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn and Blue Island.

Asked last week why he changed his mind, O’Shea said, “They have the numbers [to pass the compromise]. You live to fight another day. I can count, Addition was never a problem for me in school.”

He added, “There’s too much regulation of small businesses. The [bottled] water tax is crippling to my grocers. The gas tax — no one buys gas at neighborhood gas stations. They go right across the street to the suburbs where it’s significantly cheaper. This would have been another nail in their coffin. This compromise is gonna help protect business owners and lessen the burden on them.”

No matter how watered-down the language, City Council approval of any ban on plastic bags is a dramatic turnaround for Chicago.

Seven years ago, Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) proposed a ban on non-compostable plastic bags.

But Burke backed off after retailers joined forces with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley against the ban.

Retailers helped draft a recycling compromise and went along with it, even after expressing strong reservations about the cost.

Last year, Emanuel’s opposition derailed a weaker ban-the-bag ordinance that would have prohibited Chicago retailers with more than 5,000 square feet of floor space from putting their merchandise in plastic bags.

Moreno then came back with a new version that includes retailers large and small at the behest of aldermen whose wards are dominated by small stores and didn’t want their wards littered with plastic bags.

Last week, a triumphant Moreno vowed to “come back at some point and have everybody included” in his plastic bag ban that still has a lot of holes in it.

But he flatly denied that the compromise had been softened so much to attract the 26 votes needed for passage that it diminished the environmental impact.

“We have 3 billion bags used in Chicago [every year]. If we’re taking 90 percent of those away, that’s a huge step in the right direction,” Moreno said then.

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