City Council showdown on plastic bag ban put off until April 24

SHARE City Council showdown on plastic bag ban put off until April 24

A showdown vote on a groundbreaking Chicago ban on plastic bags was put off Monday—until April 24—to give aldermen more time to craft an exemption for independent retailers.

The City Council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection was originally scheduled to vote Tuesday on a San Francisco-style environmental crackdown that would prohibit Chicago retailers from putting their merchandise in plastic bags.

That was the promise that Chairman George Cardenas (12th) made to Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st), chief sponsor of the plastic bag ban.

But Cardenas said Monday he needs more time to craft an exemption for independent retailers in conjunction with the city Law Department and the mayor’s office.

“There definitely will be an exemption for small business. In terms of adding to the overall problem, they’re at the very bottom. They’re not Jewel with customers who have a week’s worth of groceries in 30 plastic bags,” Cardenas said.

“The idea is to protect small, private businesses. When it comes to qualifying for the exemption, we may go up to 10,000 square feet for independent grocers, but not take in smaller stores owned by large chains. The current thinking is to get this stuff in order and get as many people on board as possible. There should not be a problem passing this out of committee.”

Cardenas said the exemption will likely take into account “a combination of both” annual revenue and square footage.

“It’s not going to look like San Francisco. It’s not going to look like New York. It’ll be somewhere in the middle with exemptions and timelines potentially as long as 18 months” for impacted retailers,Cardenas said.

Moreno could not be reached for comment on the nine-day delay for a plastic bag ban that the City Council has been talking about for more than six years.

Last week, Moreno said he was open to the idea of exempting small retailers.

“It’s not preferred, but it’s OK. I can’t say it’s not OK. The original ordinance I submitted two years ago exempted small stores,” Moreno said then.

“The reason they were put back in was some of the aldermen only had small corner liquor stores” and wanted to join in the environmental benefit of banning plastic bags.

Moreno is likely to go along with the idea of carving out an exemption for independents. 

He warned last week that basing an exemption “solely on square footage” would excuse large chains like 7-Eleven and BP Amoco that have scores of stores with small footprints.

“I would argue that you can’t just look at square footage. You have to look at revenue and employee count. That’s what we’re discussing right now” with the mayor’s office, Moreno said.

Last month, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he was prepared to ban plastic bags but had not yet decided whether or when to include smaller retailers.

“It’s how to balance what happens between a big retailer vs. a neighborhood store, which is what I told you in the beginning was where I thought you needed to be sensitive [because] the details matter here,” the mayor said last week.

“This touches a lot of people [and] how they live their lives and you’re not gonna just do it overnight. … We will get where we need to be on the plastic bags because it’s in the interest of the city.”

Last year, Emanuel’s opposition derailed a weaker ban-the-bag ordinance that would have prohibited Chicago retailers with more than 5,000 square feet of floor space from putting their merchandise in plastic bags.

Moreno then came back with a new version that includes retailers large and small at the behest of aldermen whose wards are dominated by small stores and didn’t want their wards littered with plastic bags.

That only made the Illinois Retail Merchants Association’s push harder for a 10-cent tax on paper bags, which cost three times as much as plastic, to allow retailers to recoup their costs and give consumers an incentive to bring reusable bags on shopping trips.

Emanuel, Cardenas and Moreno have all rejected the tax idea. They have argued that there’s nothing stopping retailers from imposing the tax, but they’re not about to do it for them.

“A fee is not on the table. There’s not enough support for a fee. It’s either ban it or don’t,” Cardenas said Monday.

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