Quick Hit Anthony Burke Boylan Thursday August 16th, 2012, 3:30pm

New Program Seeks To Sway Consumers, Lawmakers In The Battle Of The Bags

Consumers in five Chicago Wards will be seeing new bags to carry their purchases, though they may not notice the difference unless it’s pointed out to them.

It’s all part of a larger effort to ban plastic bags at large retailers in Chicago. The proposed ordinance, introduced by Ald. Proco “Joe’’ Moreno (1st), would encourage people to bring reusable bags to the store and charge a nickel for paper or so-called plastic alternative bags at retailers of 5,000 square feet or more.

Five local aldermen are supporting a pilot project to put the alternative bags into the hands of local merchants and consumers in advance of public hearings on the ban ordinance, which are expected later this year. The bags are made of corn and potato starch, as well as other natural materials, contain no petroleum, will break down in composting, and can hold up to 22 pounds, more than the standard plastic bags in use now.

“When lobbyists for plastic bag manufacturers come to town and tell us what a burden this will be on consumers, we want people to already understand this change will barely be noticeable to them,’’ said Camilo Ferro, CEO of The Plastic Bag Solution, the Chicago company hoping to provide a plastic-alternative to Chicago.

More than three billion plastic bags are handed out to shoppers each year in the Chicago area, and about a trillion worldwide.

The five aldermen supporting the bag pilot program with financial contributions from $500 to $3,100 are: Danny Solis (25th), Walter Burnett (27th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Amaya Pawar (47th), and Moreno. The Plastic Bag Solution is distributing 150,000 bags, 30,000 in each ward. The bags will carry the name of the alderman in that ward, as well as those of several sponsoring local businesses.

The total cost of the program is $27,750, or about 18.5 cents per bag, though organizers say the cost would be about 12 cents a bag for a larger scale program – on par with the cost of handled paper bags, but higher than that 5 cents apiece for current plastic bags.

Costs would be defrayed, and even reduced to nothing for some merchants, through advertising. Large stores, such as a Jewel, could use the bags to promote sales, seasonal products or sell the space to manufacturers of the products they carry – Proctor and Gamble cleansers or Ragu pasta sauce. For smaller businesses, the bags could be hyper-local advertising for non-retail businesses, allowing a local attorney, realtor or insurance agent to buy space on the bags.

For some businesses, non-polluting bags are part of their business branding.

“We’ve been offering compostable bags (instead of plastic) since day one,’’ said Cassie Green, owner of Green Grocer Chicago, 1402 W. Grand Ave. This “is just a great way to demonstrate a cohesive front that stands for a better bag option over nasty plastic.’’

The cost and winning over retailers, the Chicago City Council and consumers aren’t the only battles The Plastic Bag Solution faces, though. The Illinois Legislature passed what environmentalists call the plastic bag protection bill, which would implement a modest recycling program but prevent any municipalities from banning plastic bags until at least 2017.

At the moment, the bill is awaiting Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature or veto, with heavy lobbying happening on both sides. Chicago would be exempt from the state law.

Current statistics show only about 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled. That’s partly due to consumer behavior, but also because the recycling process is difficult, expensive, and often causes problems with recycling machinery used for other products as well. Critics say there is little incentive to recycle because the cost of making new bags is so cheap.

Other cities have been passing plastic bag bans for several years. Washington D.C. was among the first with a five-cent bag tax and has seen plastic bag usage drop 80 percent. The entire nation of Ireland passed the similar “plastax’’ and has seen plastic bag usage drop more than 90 percent.

“The Plastic Bag Solution is a leader of this necessary revolution,’’ said Ald. Moreno. “It shows how small and local companies are always the innovators and drivers of progress. They've been essential in my effort to ban this dangerous and disgusting product in Chicago.’’

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