Ban plastic bags, but not without a paper fee

Written By EDITORIALS Posted: 03/31/2014, 02:17am

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and nearly every alderman back a ban on plastic bags in all Chicago stores.

We’re all for it. Plastic bags are an environmental hazard — those suckers take years to break down, and while they’re hanging around, they pollute and sully our streets and waterways. They also cost the city, forcing the city to spend money to fish them out of sewers and the Chicago River and store them in landfills. And at a time when a national goal is to reduce fossil fuel use, why encourage the production of an unnecessary product made from oil or natural gas?

We applaud 1st Ward Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno for pushing hard for a strong ban. But, we ask, if the goal is to make a lasting impact, why not go all the way?

That would require mandating that stores charge consumers 10 cents to use a paper bag, a fee small enough not to pose a serious financial burden but large enough to encourage the use of reusable bags. The proposed ordinance allows for a fee but doesn’t require it. Emanuel is leery of a mandated fee and Moreno doesn’t support it, though he told us he’s willing to consider it after seeing how a ban plays out here.

The big fear: Without a paper bag fee, consumers will likely switch to paper and leave their reusable bags at home. An uptick in the use of paper bags would significantly reduce the positive environmental impact of the plastic bag ban and add to costs for retailers. Paper bags are better than plastic environmentally speaking, breaking down more quickly than plastic, but paper bags take more energy to produce and take up more landfill space.

San Francisco first tried a plastic ban without a mandated paper bag fee in 2007, but then added it in 2012. More than 100 local governments in California ban plastic bags, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, and all require a paper bag fee save two, both of which ban paper bags, according to the advocacy group Environment California. New York City is considering a 10-cent fee for all bags, but not a ban.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association prefers to beef up recycling efforts first, but would consider, if that fails, a ban coupled with a mandated paper bag fee. That sounds like a stalling tactic — recycling efforts could never match a ban — but it would be wise to work with retailers on the paper bag fee because having them on board increases the odds of a successful ban. The proposed ban, which currently targets retail stores of all sizes, faces a committee vote on April 15 and a full City Council vote after that.

A plastic bag ban admittedly imposes certain relatively small costs and inconveniences. But it would be environmentally wise and save the city money.

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