Chicago ban on plastic bags stuck in neutral with Rahm on the fence

SHARE Chicago ban on plastic bags stuck in neutral with Rahm on the fence
SHARE Chicago ban on plastic bags stuck in neutral with Rahm on the fence

A San-Francisco-style environmental plan to prohibit large Chicago retailers from putting their merchandise in plastic bags is going nowhere this week because Mayor Rahm Emanuel is on the fence, City Hall sources said Monday.

“They say they’re neutral, but that means they’re not gonna support it. When they’re for something, they let us know and lobby hard. No one is gonna jump on this if the mayor is not on board,” said a source close to the negotiations, who asked to remain anonymous.

The City Council’s Health and Environmental Protection Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday on the “ban the bag” ordinance introduced nineteen months ago by Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st).

It would require Chicago retailers with more than 5,000 sq. ft. of floor space to provide reusable bags to customers “either for sale or at no charge.”

But, Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) said Monday he plans to take testimony without calling the ordinance for a vote.

“I strongly favor it. From an environmental standpoint, it would be good for the city to move away from plastic. It’ll help the waste stream. But, we’ll explore the cost vs. the benefits. We’re gonna hear everybody out. I just don’t see us finishing in one day,” he said.

A top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous, said Emanuel’s decision to remain neutral does not mean the mayor opposes a Chicago ban on plastic bags.

“No position. Waiting for City Council to work through their concerns with each other,” the mayoral aide wrote in a text message.

“They have disagreements and we have a ton on our plate. If there’s concensus and it moves, we would be happy to support” the ban.

The Il. Retail Merchants Association is dead-set against the ban for the same reason the idea was shelved in 2008 in favor of a watered-down replacement that required large retailers to install bins to collect and recycle plastic bags.

Banning plastic bags in favor of reusable bags would saddle retailers with another regulatory cost they cannot afford, the merchants contend.

“There are better alternatives out there that we will outline” during the hearing, Il. Retail Merchants Association President David Vite said Monday, refusing to reveal specifics.

“Moreno’s idea is the one that galvanizes the retail industry. They’re all against it. It’s much more costly at a time when consumers are already having difficulty meeting their food budgets. It will punish folks who buy groceries rather than go to white table cloth restaurants.”

Moreno scoffs at the suggestion that banning plastic bags would drive up consumer prices. If “progressive” retailers like Aldi’s, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods can ween themselves off plastic, big-box stores can do the same, he contends.

Five years ago, Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) proposed a ban on non-compostible plastic bags to curb the flood of bags stuck in trees and fences, jamming landfills and waterways and blamed for the annual death of a million birds and 100,000 marine animals.

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

Retailers helped draft the recycling compromise and went along with it, even after expressing strong reservations about the cost. At the time, plastic bags cost two cents apiece, compared to six cents for paper and as much as 14 cents for compostible plastic bags.

On Monday, Chicago Recycling Coalition President Mike Nowak renewed his call for the City Council to impose a tax of 10 cents or more on plastic bags.

Nowak noted that a 29-cent fee helped the Republic of Ireland reduce plastic bag usage by 95 percent. A five-cent fee in Washington D.C. prompted a 60 percent drop, he said.

“We need to follow the lead of the programs that work. What works is a fee. People look at the receipt and say, `What am I paying for? Why don’t I bring the bag?’ People will begin to bring their own bags. They’ll get used to it,” Nowak said.

Nowak argued that the plastic bag recycling ordinance was “doomed to failure” and he “knew it at the time….It frustrates me. We wasted five years. And that was after wasting fifteen years on blue-bag recycling” of household waste.

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