Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) and a handful of other aldermen want plastic carryout bags banned in Chicago.
On Tuesday, members of the city council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection heard more than two hours of testimony on a plastic bag reduction ordinance, which Moreno first introduced in November 2011.
“Plastic bags of today are the Styrofoam containers of yesterday, and we moved past that,” Moreno said at the hearing.
Plastic bags do not biodegrade, and over time they break down to smaller, toxic pieces that pollute the water and soil, according to the ordinance. Also, plastic bag production worldwide uses more than 12 million barrels of oil each year, the ordinance reads.
The measure looks to ban the bags in stores with more than 5,000 square-feet of retail space. According to the ordinance, “no store shall provide to any customer a plastic carryout bag.” Under the proposal, retailers would also have to supply reusable bags to customers, although they can charge for them.
But the environmental committee chairman, Ald. George Cardenas (12th), did not call the ordinance for a vote following Tuesday's hearing.
He said the majority of the committee members are in support of the ordinance, but they need more time to hear opinions and talk with manufacturers about different bag options, such as biodegradable ones.
“You want to hear folks out and have different options. If we do a total ban, that’s not options, that just a ban,” Cardenas said in remarks after the hearing. He added that some tweaks may have to be made to the ordinance.
In remarks before the hearing, Moreno said he would be open to suggestions that strengthen or perhaps expand the measure, but not weaken it.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not voiced support nor opposition to the proposed plastic bag ban.
When asked whether the ordinance could succeed without the mayor’s active support, Cardenas responded, “There’s movement on this ... we’re going to get stuff done.”
Moreno said his fellow aldermen largely support the legislation.
“Quite frankly, I haven’t talked to anyone that’s against it,” he said before the meeting.
The measure’s co-sponsors include Alds. Bob Fioretti (2nd), Daniel Solis (25th), John Arena (45th), James Cappleman (46th), and Ameya Pawar (47th).
Cardenas said another hearing would be held on the proposal, possibly within the next month.
“The next time there will be a vote,” he said.
The average Chicagoan uses 500 plastic bags a year, Moreno said. The “monster” (pictured) represents those bags. About 3.7 million plastic bags are used every day in the city of Chicago, Moreno added.
Jared Teutsch, water policy advocate at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said in 2012, its beach cleanup volunteers removed more than 5,800 plastic bags from Chicago’s beaches.
The bags not only cause environmental harm, they can also become lodged in sewer grates or tangled in manufacturing machinery, causing economic damage for government and businesses, said Kathryn Abendroth, field coordinator with Environment Illinois.
Moreno added that banning single-use, plastic bags will not "cure all our environmental and economical issues, but it’s one big step in what I think our city needs to take."
Six years ago, some members of the city council pushed for a plastic bag ban, but instead, the council passed a recycling-related measure in 2008. Under the current ordinance, certain retailers, such as grocery stores, have to provide at-store recycling programs for plastic bags and film.
Mike Nowak, president of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, said the recycling ordinance was a “first step that failed to produce a second step.”
“So what do we do this time? Do we punt the ball down the field another five years, ten years,” he asked the committee members. “Let’s do it right. Let’s do it right now.”
Moreno said less than 3 percent of plastic bags in the city are actually recycled.
“And you know as well as I do, you go into any large grocer, and on the side you’ll find the recycling bin, it’s over in the corner gathering dust,” Moreno explained before the meeting.
Recycling the bags is a “false promise,” he said, because there is little infrastructure in place to actually recycle them. The bags can also get tied up in the recycling process.
“If they actually do get made into another bag, less than 25 percent of the content is recycled,” he explained. “So you’re making four more bags for one.”
In 2010, less than 5 percent of bags were recycled nationally, while in Illinois less than 1 percent were recycled, Abendroth said. Overall, bag recycling has proved ineffective with low participation rates, she explained.
“The bottom line is that nothing we use for just a few minutes should pollute our land and waterways for hundreds of years,” she said.
Cities like Seattle and San Francisco, among others, already have a bag ban.
Under Chicago's proposed ordinance, stores that continue to provide plastic bags to customers would see a $150 to $250 fine for each offense. And failing to provide customers with reusable bags will come with a $50 to $150 fee for each offense, according to the ordinance.
Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel with the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said the proposal to ban plastic bags “has galvanized the retail industry in its opposition.” She said banning plastic bags is essentially a tax on retailers.
On average, a plastic bag costs a retailer 3 cents, while paper bags cost 10 cents, Triche said. Biodegradable bags start at about 15 cents.
“If we are not able to provide plastic bags, then we’ll need to purchase more paper bags for our customers to take with them, which increases our costs,” she said.
About three people spoke against the ordinance at the committee, while about 20 speakers testified in support of it.
“If anyone is galvanized around this issue, I would submit that it’s not the Retail Merchants Association and their members,” Moreno said.
The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to the committee in opposition of the measure. According to the letter, which Cardenas read out loud, the bag ban would create a burden for businesses and customers, resulting in increased costs for consumers.
But Moreno said plastic bags’ costs to the planet and to taxpayers, who are often on the hook for clean-up costs, far outweighs retailers’ costs.
Already, a handful of large retailers in Chicago, such as Whole Foods, Costco and Aldi’s, do not use single-use, plastic bags.
“Those bags don’t disappear. They don’t degrade," Nowak stressed. "They don’t make sense anymore when you consider that the average single-use, disposable bag is used for about 12 minutes, that’s its life ... and then it survives for another thousand years unless it fully degrades in the ocean.”
If the committee approves the measure, the full city council would still have to approve it. If that happens, the ordinance would take effect 120 days after its passage.