Broadened Chicago ban on plastic bags gaining steam

SHARE Broadened Chicago ban on plastic bags gaining steam

Last year, opposition from Mayor Rahm Emanuel derailed a San Francisco-style environmental crackdown that would have prohibited Chicago retailers with more than 5,000 square feet of floor space from putting their merchandise in plastic bags.

Now, the sponsor of that ordinance is making it even tougher—by including small retailers—and claiming he has the votes to approve the ban-the-bag ordinance, no matter what the mayor says.

Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st) said the small-store exemption was dropped to attract more votes for the new version he introduced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

He now believes he has the 26 votes needed to win full council approval of the long-stalled ordinance.

Co-sponsoring Ald. Chairman George Cardenas (12th) agreed and said he plans to move the plastic bag ban through the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection he chairs in a few weeks.

“We were letting smaller stores off the hook. But some aldermen were concerned. They said, `All I have is small stores in my ward. If you don’t cover them, my ward is still gonna look like crap with bags all over the place,’ “ Moreno said.

“I’ve got 47 signatures. I’m very confident we have the votes. We’ve been kicking this around for years. I’m not a very patient guy, but I’ve been patient on this. It’s time to move.”

Cardenas said he was “initially worried about the economic impact” of banning plastic bags. But he has since been reassured by officials in Los Angeles and other cities that “the cost of implementing such a ban is not what they claim it is. … It is doable, and we should move forward on this.”

The only issue, the chairman said, is how long smaller retailers should be given to comply.

“We may do an exemption for a period of time so small shops have time to get acclimated. We may allow small stores up to a three-year timeline,” Cardenas said.

What about Emanuel, who put the brakes on a weaker ban-the-bag ordinance last year?

“I have not heard from mayor’s office, but it is timely to move forward. He is very friendly to environment. I believe the mayor will support the changes we’ve made,” Cardenas said.

The mayor’s office issued an emailed statement that does not take a position on the revised ordinance, which broadens the definition of “reusable” bags to include “compostable” bags made of peanuts and soy.

“We have not yet reviewed this proposed ordinance, but share Ald. Moreno’s commitment to ensuring a cleaner Chicago. We look forward to seeing a final ordinance after the alderman works with his colleagues, community leaders and the business community,” the statement said.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association renewed its claim that banning plastic bags is tantamount to levying a “tax on retailers.” That’s because paper bags cost three times as much as plastic bags.

Unless the City Council allows retailers to recoup their costs by imposing a 10-cent tax on paper bags, the ban could stifle Emanuel’s efforts to fill food deserts with new grocery stores, said Tanya Triche, the group’s vice president and general counsel.

“It’s a hidden tax on retailers when you ban the plastic bag and don’t impose the fee. And when you raise the cost of doing business in a fragile economy, you put jobs and hours worked in jeopardy,” Triche said.

“We would like to recoup our costs. If we have to order more paper bags and they cost 10 cents, we want to recoup that 10 cents because the government is essentially raising our cost to do business. And compostable bags cost 15 cents. They’re more expensive than paper.”

Last year, Cardenas’ committee took hours of testimony but did not vote on the “ban the bag” ordinance that Moreno had introduced 19 months before. But it was clear the ban had broad support even as Emanuel remained on the fence.

The following day, Emanuel’s City Council floor leader tried to slow the legislative bandwagon by raising a red flag about the cost to grocers and consumers.

“There’s a fair amount of testimony that indicates that it will raise food prices if … the cost of the bag gets passed on,” Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) said then.

“If you increase the cost of groceries for folks in the city for this purpose, that would be a difficult vote for some members of the City Council to take, given where we are with the economy and peoples’ paychecks at the present time.”

Some environmentalists have joined in the call for a 10-cent tax on paper bags that would allow retailers to recoup the added cost. If consumers see they’re paying more for paper bags, they might be inclined to bring their own reusable bags, they contend.

But, with his eye on next year’s aldermanic election, Cardenas said, “I would not be supportive of letting them charge. That’s a tax. I don’t want to tax anything right now.”

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

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.

This week, Moreno argued that the recycling ordinance has been a bust, with only 10 percent of the 3 billion bags used in Chicago each year actually recycled.

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