City Council hearing shows broad support for banning plastic bags

SHARE City Council hearing shows broad support for banning plastic bags
SHARE City Council hearing shows broad support for banning plastic bags

Plastic bag monster placed on display in City Council chambers to demonstrate the 500 plastic bags the average Chicagoan uses every day.

Chicago will prohibit retailers from putting their merchandise in plastic bags—and phase it in over 12-to-18 months–an influential alderman predicted Tuesday, after attracting broad support at a City Council hearing.

As expected, the City Council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection took hours of testimony, but did not vote on the “ban the bag” ordinance introduced nineteen months ago by Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st).

But, it was clear that the ban has broad support even though Mayor Rahm Emanuel remains on the fence.

That prompted Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) to predict a vote at the next committee meeting on a slightly-tweaked ordinance that would phase in the ban over a 12-to-18 month period.

“The majority of the members of the committee are supportive of this ordinance. The next time, there will be a vote. We will not have another hearing unless there’s a vote,” Cardenas said.

Tanya Triche, vice-president and general counsel of the Il. Retail Merchants Association, noted that paper bags cost three times as much as plastic bags.

Unless the City Council also imposes a 10-cent tax on paper bags, Triche argued that the ban on plastic bags would amount to a “tax on retailers” that could stifle Emanuel’s efforts to erase Chicago’s food deserts.

“It’s an increased cost to the retailer, plain and simple. This ordinance is very different from some of the ordiances we’ve seen around the country , where they are charging a fee for plastic and or paper or a ban on plastic, fee on paper,” she said.

“What that allows the retailer to do is help absorb the cost of purchasing the more expensive paper bag. But, when you have an ordinance like this that doesn’t give the retailer the opportunity to do that, you just increase the cost on the retailer. Grocery stores operate on a profit margin of one-to-two percent. So, that money has to come from somewhere.”

Moreno said he’s open to the idea of a ten-cent tax on paper bags.

“There’s a financial incentive to bring your bag” to avoid the tax,” Moreno said.

“It’s an option. I would want to see more statistics on that. It’s worked in other cities.”

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.

“Fees are generally the way to go. Economics. It’s the carrot and the stick,” Nowak said.

“When I say `stick,’ it really isn’t because, if you bring your own bag, you’re not paying anything.”

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.

Nowak said 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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