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Check-out time for reusable grocery bags? For now, ‘paper or plastic’ a safer option

Local 881 President Steve Powell says he’s not seeking a repeal of the bag tax, just a temporary suspension based on concerns expressed by store clerks and baggers. “They’re scared, and they’re nervous — and rightfully so,” Powell said. 

Shoppers line up to get into the the Trader Joe’s in Evanston earlier this month.
Shoppers line up to get into the the Trader Joe’s in Evanston earlier this month.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Time

Apparently Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order also applies to reusable grocery bags.

Just one day after the union that represents Chicago grocery and pharmacy workers requested — and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration rejected — suspending the city’s plastic bag tax and temporarily banning the use of reusable bags, the governor announced Saturday that grocery stores around the state will soon roll out a new set of guidelines that includes a temporary prohibition on reusable bags.

It was not immediately clear how this will impact grocery stores in the city, where shoppers are charged 7 cents per bag if they don’t bring their own.

On Friday, the mayor’s office issued a statement statement shooting down the suggestion of a temporary ban and citing a lack of evidence that reusable bags transmit the illness.

On Saturday, it issued a new statement saying the city will comply with any new protocols and restrictions for grocery stores but intends to continue to collect the bag tax.

Zack Koutsky, a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881, had argued that switching back to plastic bags would help reduce one point of stress for checkout workers worried about being infected with the virus while handling customers’ bags brought from home.

“They believe this is an easy fix that would give them peace of mind,” Koutsky said. Local 881 represents 34,000 retail, pharmacy and grocery store workers in Illinois and northwest Indiana.

Environmental groups have been pushing back against similar efforts around the country to relax plastic bag restrictions, arguing the plastics industry is just using the crisis as an excuse to advance its own long-held agenda: repeal of state laws and city ordinances that discourage or outlaw plastic bag use.

A statement from the mayor’s office echoed the environmentalist concerns.

“The City continues to explore all options to ensure the health and safety of Chicago’s essential workers, especially our grocery store employees. However, without sufficient evidence-based data that reusable bags are a transmitter of COVID-19, we are not currently considering a ban on reusable bags. To do so will have a significant harmful impact on our environment, and will severely undermine years of work to change the behavior of the public and stores around the use of plastic bags,” the statement said.

On Saturday, Pritzker mentioned the temporary bag ban among a laundry list of new procedures worked out with the Illinois Retail Merchants that stores will be “rolling out in the coming days” to make shopping safer for both customers and employees.

Pritzker had proposed a statewide plastic bag tax last year, but dropped the idea in the face of legislative opposition.

Local 881 President Steve Powell says he’s not seeking a repeal of the city’s bag tax, just a temporary suspension while the state and city are in emergency mode.

“I’m not working with the chemical companies. That’s not my issue,” he said.

Powell said his effort is based on concerns expressed by store clerks and baggers to their union representatives.

“They’re scared, and they’re nervous — and rightfully so,” Powell said.

Cashier George Wallace, center, works behind a plastic shield as a shopper, right, places groceries in a cart Thursday at a grocery store in Quincy, Mass.
Cashier George Wallace, center, works behind a plastic shield as a shopper, right, places groceries in a cart Thursday at a grocery store in Quincy, Mass.
. Grocery stores across the U.S. are installing protective plastic shields at checkouts to help keep cashiers and shoppers from infecting each other with the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Steven Senne) ORG XMIT: MASR104

Koutsky said checkout workers may handle hundreds of customer bags brought from outside over the course of a work shift, and right now, they’re not happy about it.

Mariano’s suburban stores already have posted signs informing customers they are not allowed to use their own reusable bags for now and asking that such bags not even be brought into the store.

Target has implemented a nationwide policy that customers wanting to use reusable bags must bag their own items.

Three states have already taken steps to temporarily relax their plastic bag restrictions during the crisis, Koutsky said.

I think we all know from personal experience that the bags we lug back and forth from the store aren’t kept in immaculate condition. That doesn’t necessarily make them virus carriers, but it’s hard to be dismissive of such concerns right now when the vast majority of us have no idea whether we are infected.

Shoppers wait to enter at a Target store in Glenview on Wednesday.
AP Photos

Grocery stores are fairly unpleasant places at the moment with everybody a little tense as shoppers try — often in vain — to find the items they want while avoiding their fellow customers in the aisles and at the checkout lanes.

You can see it in the faces of the workers, too.

“There is definitely just an overall tenseness every time I go to work,” one 24-year-old cashier told me Friday.

These workers don’t have the luxury of phoning it in from home.

While most of them are happy to still be collecting a paycheck and probably extra hours at that, they aren’t necessarily happy about having no choice about interfacing with the public or, in many cases, little to nothing in the way of personal protection.

I support the bag tax. It has served its purpose and should continue to do so.

But Saturday’s announcement from the governor helped clarify something for me.

The rest of us don’t have to wait for the governor and the mayor to get on the same page. Temporarily returning to plastic (or paper) bags seems like a reasonable request at this time and a simple enough way to show those harried grocery workers we appreciate their concerns.

Leave your bags at home and pay the plastic tax if required. If it gives them a little peace of mind, it’s worth it.