A long-stalled proposal to crackdown on plastic carryout bags in Chicago unanimously passed out of the city council's environmental committee Thursday despite objections from industry groups that say the move will hurt businesses.
Approval of the Ban-The-Bag measure, spearheaded by Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), followed a comprise at City Hall this week to revise the ordinance so that restaurants and mom-and-pop stores can continue using plastic bags at the point of sale. Previously, the ordinance would have applied to retailers of all sizes.
Under the measure, Chicago restaurants and small, independent stores less than 10,000 square feet in size would be exempt. Small retailers, however, would have to comply with the plastic bag ban if they are part of a chain with at least three stores.
"I'm very open to re-looking at this and adding even more players into it, but this is a huge step today for the city of Chicago," Moreno told reporters after the vote.
If the full city council approves the ordinance at its monthly meeting next week, Chicago would join other U.S. cities like Portland and Seattle that have already imposed some form of a plastic bag ban at checkout counters. Hawaii was the first U.S. state to approve a statewide crackdown on plastic bags at the point of sale. And policy makers in California — where almost 100 municipalities including Los Angeles and San Francisco already ban the bags — are trying to prohibit them statewide.
Under the pending Chicago ordinance, stores larger than 10,000 square feet would have until August 1, 2015 to comply. For retailers less than 10,000 square feet in size, the compliance date would be August 1, 2016. If retailers mandated to adhere to the ordinance continue to provide plastic bags to customers, they would see a $300 to $500 fine for each offense.
The ordinance states that "each operator shall provide reusable bags, recyclable paper bags or commercially-compostable plastic bags, or any combination thereof, to customers for the purpose of enabling the customer to carry away goods from the point of sale."
Failure to provide customers with either a reusable, paper or compostable plastic bag would come with a $100 to $300 fee for each offense.
Thursday's vote comes about seven years after Chicago Alds. Ed Burke (14th) and Margaret Laurino (39th) first pushed for a citywide plastic bag ban. Instead, the council passed a recycling-related measure in 2008. Moreno introduced his initial plastic bag reduction ordinance back in November 2011.
Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who co-sponsored the new ordinance and chairs the environmental committee, called the pending ordinance "groundbreaking" for the city.
"It's definitely moving forward for the city, environmentally and pro-business, by the way," the alderman said, explaining that the measure could lead to the creation of more businesses focused on producing non-plastic bags.
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA), which has been a fierce opponent of a Ban-The-Bag ordinance, believes banning plastic bags is essentially a tax on retailers. A plastic bag, according to IRMA, costs a retailer roughly 3 cents each. By comparison, paper bags cost about 10 cents per sack and biodegradable bags start at about 15 cents each.
"Grocery stores ... they're invested in this city and they are competing every day for residents' dollars and they don't want customers to go somewhere else to purchase their goods," IRMA's Vice President and General Counsel Tanya Triche said after the committee vote. "And the city itself is looking to attract more grocery stores, yet today they have passed an ordinance to increase the cost for grocery stores. So I think grocery stores are confused about what the city really wants."
Moreno repeated on Thursday that nothing is stopping retailers covered by the pending ordinance from charging a fee on paper or other non-plastic bags if they want.
The American Progressive Bag Alliance is another opponent of the ordinance. Its chairman Lee Califf issued this statement after today's committee vote:
The decision to bring a proposed plastic bag ban to a full council vote is a bad move for Chicago, placing undue burden on big box retailers and grocers and the families that shop in these stores. This directly damages the city's business-friendly reputation and threatens a manufacturing industry that employs 30,800 Americans, including 3,000 people in Illinois.
Chairman Cardenas and the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection has chosen bad policy based on poor information that will be a detriment to Chicago's economic vitality. Comprehensive plastic bag recycling education would better benefit Chicago and preserve consumer choice. We will continue to join forces with affected retailers, Chicago residents and those whose jobs are on the line, to convince the city council that this policy is counterproductive to Chicago's future.
But Moreno said he takes issue with claims that a plastic bag crackdown will hurt businesses or jobs.
"Countries that have done this, states that have done this, [the] state of Hawaii, [the] country of Ireland. We have no evidence that one job or one dollar was lost from those economies," Moreno said. "It's scare tactics on their part, and that didn't work this time. We stayed strong ... because the facts are on our side."
In response to the bag alliance's argument regarding recycling, Cardenas said he believes the pending ordinance will actually create more recycling opportunities.
"Right now as it stands, the bag does not have any value from a recycling standpoint," the alderman said. "So I think if more businesses like Target or Jewel move to a more recyclable material, I think there will be a value in that. I think folks that recycle will then gather those and potentially sell those to a secondary market that then will recycle [them]. You create an economy for that in the market, while right now you don't have that opportunity."
Meanwhile, Triche argued that paper bags are just as bad as plastic bags when it comes to the environment.
"You're going to take plastic bags out of the waste stream, you're going to take them out of the landfills and off of the streets, and you're going to replace them with paper bags that are larger, denser and take up more space in the landfills," she said.
But Moreno pushed back on that statement.
"I equate that to saying that a hybrid Honda and a Hummer are the same because they both use gas," Moreno said. "Sure, paper bags are not the panacea for this. Bringing your own bag is what we want people to do, but in the short term, we're going to allow for paper and trying to change consumer behavior. That's going to take some time."
Cardenas noted that paper bags, unlike plastic bags, are biodegradable. He also pointed out that the costs to taxpayers to clean up plastic bags is "really insurmountable."
When asked whether retailers would pass the added costs of paper and other bags onto consumers, Cardenas said, "I doubt that."
"When you spend $200, I think the least you can do is give your customers a bag to take away," he said.
Make sure to check back with Progress Illinois for our coverage of next Wednesday's Chicago City Council meeting.