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Opinion: Take it from the Shedd: That bag tax is good for fish

Sun-Times file photo

Chicago’s new tax on disposable bags is getting mixed reviews, but it’s a huge step toward keeping debris out of our lakes, rivers and canals.

Shedd Aquarium, as an environmental steward, has seen the damage plastic debris can have on our waterways and aquatic wildlife. In 2016 alone, as part of our Great Lakes Action Days program, more than 2,000 volunteers helped collect 4,224 pounds of debris, including disposable bags, from nearby beaches and parks. But now, with the 7-cent tax on bags provided by stores, which went into effect this month, we hope the amount of debris will decrease.

OPINION

Measured by tonnage, scientists estimate, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. To combat this escalating problem, many communities have imposed bans on plastic bags. Chicago should be proud that it was one of the first cities to take action.

In 2015, the Chicago City Council passed a ban on plastic bags, but the city quickly became aware of severe shortcomings of the new policy. Retailers were allowed to offer thicker plastic bags, which were considered more durable and therefore reusable or useful for multiple purposes. Ultimately, though, consumers ended up not using these bags again or for multiple purposes. Moreover, they proved difficult to recycle, making the intent of the 2015 ban — to reduce the number of plastic bags used — unsuccessful.

The ban was repealed on Jan. 1 of this year and replaced with the bag tax, which retailers can implement in either of two ways. The first option is to charge consumers the 7-cent tax for each bag, in which case they are required to itemize the tax on the customer’s receipt. The second option is for retailers to absorb the tax and “give” bags to customers, allowing them to leave the tax off receipts.

Whichever option retailers choose, it is important that shoppers are aware of the tax and its positive impact on our environment.

Given that Chicago sits along the shore of Lake Michigan, the bag tax should reduce the amount of waste that ends up in our Great Lakes and oceans. A recent study from New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology estimates that 22 million pounds of plastic pollution enter the Great Lakes every year.

Plastic waste in water can have a devastating impact on wildlife. It can take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to break down; and even then, plastics remain in ecosystems in tiny pieces known as micro-plastics. Many species of wildlife, both in lakes and oceans, ingest pieces of plastic (from whole bags to tiny microbeads) and suffocate, starve, drown or contract an infection and perish. Plastic waste is a threat to 86 percent of sea turtle species, 43 percent of marine mammal species, and 44 percent of seabird species.

Our team at Shedd Aquarium congratulates the city of Chicago for taking an important step in balancing customer needs and environmental stewardship. We are optimistic the new tax will encourage consumers to user fewer bags and reduce the amount of plastic waste in our lakes and rivers. Bag taxes can be extremely effective, as shown in Los Angeles, where a 10-cent tax reduced the use of plastic bags by roughly 90 percent.

Fortunately, retailers are making it relatively easy to both avoid paying extra and make an impact to protect the environment by providing low-cost canvas bags nearby check-out lines.

For more information about plastic pollution and the effect it has on wildlife, visit Shedd Aquarium’s website. And, to commit to the cause of saving animals in the wild, join us in taking the pledge to pass on single-use plastic.

Garrett Johnson is the stewardship specialist of Conservation Partnerships and Programs at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.