Aldermen move to ban plastic bags

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With self-congratulation but no debate, Chicago aldermen agreed Thursday to ban plastic bags but exempt restaurants and small independent retailers in a move that will require consumers to dramatically change their shopping habits.

“Today for Chicago is a historic day in terms of our environment and moving into a new economy,” said Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st), who has waged a two-year campaign for the San Francisco-style environmental crackdown.

“These bags are a relic of yesterday’s economy. There is no evidence—none, zero—from any country, state or city that has enacted similar bans of any job loss of any business loss. .. We’ve been working on this for two years. Our environment is going to be better in Chicago. Our business climate is gonna be better. And the quality of life in some of our neighborhoods is going to be a little bit better with the removal of these relics.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he endorsed the partial ban—and his staff helped broker a compromise co-sponsored by even its harshest critics—because it’s part of his broader environmental policy.

“A decade ago, people talked about plastic bag bans. I said we were going to work through the issue, and we’ve worked through the issue to balance a lot of equities and interests to achieve the environmental policy I’ve set for the city,” Emanuel said.

“Which is consistent with a city that now, after decades, has recycling throughout the city. It’s consistent with a city that decided after decades of debate we’re no longer gonna have … the last two coal-fire power plants operating in the city. And a city that’s also decided to deal with petcoke in its backyards and neighborhoods.”

Thanks to all of the exemptions and an August 2016 effective date for some, Ald. George Cardenas (12th) got the unanimous voice vote he wanted in the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection he chairs. He has predicted at least 35 votes on the City Council floor next week.

That’s quite a turnaround for a City Council that shelved a plastic bag ban seven years ago in favor of a recycling compromise that’s been roundly ignored.

Instead of simply excusing small mom-and-pop retailers, the final language exempts all Chicago restaurants as well as “non-franchise” independent stores with a square footage under 10,000 feet.

Stores with less than 10,000 square feet would be included if they’re part of a chain that includes three or more stores.

Compliance deadlines would depend on the size of the store. If they’re bigger than 10,000 square feet, the deadline would be Aug. 1, 2015. If they’re 10,000 square feet or less, they would have until Aug. 1, 2016, to get in line.

Fines would range from $300 to $500 for each offense. All retailers covered “shall provide reusable bags, recyclable paper bags or any combination thereof” to customers to be used to “carry away goods from the point of sale,” the ordinance states.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association has argued that there are so many exemptions, the environmental impact — on plastic bags stuck in trees and in landfills — will be minimal.

Merchants pushed hard 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.

But Emanuel, Cardenas and Moreno all rejected the tax idea. They have argued that there’s nothing stopping retailers from imposing the tax, but the City Council is not about to do it for them and wear the jacket for nickel-and-diming Chicagoans.

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