Chicago retailers with more than 5,000 square feet of floor space would be prohibited from distributing plastic bags to their customers under a San Francisco-style environmental ordinance proposed Wednesday that retailers warn would drive up costs for consumers.
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association is dead set against the ban for the same reason the idea was shelved in 2008 in favor of a watered-down version: Banning plastic bags in favor of reusable bags would saddle retailers with another regulatory cost they cannot afford.
“A quadrupling of the cost of each bag will translate into higher prices at a time when grocery prices are going up. This is just another attack on consumers and their ability to purchase goods at reasonable prices,” said association president David Vite.
“We’re trying to bring grocery stores into the city to solve the food desert problem. This is not the time to start putting onerous new costs on the grocery industry or any retailers.”
Chief sponsor Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st) scoffed at the suggestion that banning plastic bags would drive up consumer prices.
If “progressive” retailers such as Aldi’s, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods can ween themselves off plastic, big-box stores can do the same, he said.
“There are biodegradable bags and other bags that can be used. Their costs are higher today because they’re selling billions and billions of these petroleum-based plastic bags. Those removed from the market will bring down the cost of biodegradable bags,” Moreno said.
“We had the same discussions 10, 15 years ago. You don’t see any Big Mac or Whopper clam shells out there anymore.”
Why then is Moreno exempting smaller stores?
“We don’t want to hurt the mom-and-pop stores” until the price of reusable bags comes down, he said.
The “ban the bag” ordinance introduced at Wednesday’s City Council meeting states: “No store shall provide to any customer a plastic carryout bag” for the purpose of “carrying away goods from the point of sale.”
Larger retailers would be required to provide reusable bags to customers, “either for sale or at no charge.” Violators would face fines ranging from $150 to $250 for each offense of providing plastic bags and $50 to $150 for failing to provide reusable bags.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel took no position on the proposal. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley helped sack a similar bag ban in 2008 introduced by Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th), who backed off after retailers objected.
Instead, Chicago retailers that make 25 percent of gross sales from food or pharmaceuticals were required to install plastic bag recycling bins and distribute bags that state, “Please reuse or recycle.”
At the time, Burke warned that if the New York-style ordinance didn’t curb the flood of plastic bags stuck in trees and jamming landfills and waterways, Chicago would either broaden the mandate beyond the 20,000 stores covered or follow San Francisco’s lead by banning plastic bags.
“I don’t know that we could get 26 votes for an outright ban,” Burke said then. “We have to start someplace. This is a good beginning. If that doesn’t work, we’ll go the next step.”
Environmentalists had urged aldermen to take the bold step of imposing a tax of 10 cents or more on plastic bags. That helped the Republic of Ireland reduce plastic bag usage by 94 percent.