Small stores likely to be exempt from Chicago ban on plastic bags

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Small retailers with less than 2,000 square feet of floor space are likely to be excused from a Chicago ban on plastic bags while larger retailers get one year to comply, an influential alderman said Monday.

One week after offering to give small retailers three years to comply — long enough for consumers to get used to the idea of bringing their own bags on shopping trips — Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection, suggested letting small retailers off the hook altogether.

“It’s a good gesture for small business. It’s a good compromise. You’ve got to be able to compromise,” Cardenas said.

“I want to be able to pass this plastic bag ban. It’s good for Chicago because it costs a lot of money to clean up the city. If that’s what it takes to get this deal done, then, I’m for it. I want to be able to deliver something.”

Just last week, Cardenas said giving small retailers three years to comply was preferable to “exempting them altogether.”

Why the change?

“Small businesses have born the brunt of all the stuff that happens. They’re gonna be snuffed out” if the City Council keeps imposing regulations on them, the chairman said.

Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st), chief sponsor of the plastic bag ban, said he, too, is open to the idea of exempting small retailers.

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

“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.

But Moreno warned 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.

On Monday, top mayoral aides said they were still studying “a few options” on how to deal with small and large retailers and that “nothing has been decided yet.”

And Emanuel refused to tip his hand.

“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] and the details matter here,” the mayor said Monday.

“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 as it relates to our environmental policy and we’ll work through those issues.”

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 that cost three times as much as plastic to allow retailers to recoup their costs and change consumer behavior.

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.

Compromise language is expected to be hammered out in time for an April 15 vote by the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection.

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