Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday March 25th, 2014, 4:34pm

Debate Over Chicago's Proposed Plastic Bag Ban Heats Up

Chicagoans are up in arms over a proposal to crackdown on plastic carryout bags in the city.

The Chicago City Council's Committee on Health and Environmental Protection held a two-hour subject matter hearing on Ald. Joe Moreno's (1st) long-stalled plastic bag reduction ordinance Tuesday and debate over the proposal was fierce.

Moreno's ban-the-bag measure, which failed to move forward last year, originally looked to outlaw plastic bags in stores with more than 5,000 square-feet of retail space. But the new ordinance, introduced in the city council earlier this month, would apply to retailers of all sizes. Adding small stores to the mix was seen as a way to garner more support for the measure. 

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), who co-sponsored the new ordinance and chairs the environmental committee, said the proposal, which will likely see some additional tweaks, is slated for a committee vote on April 15.

"I think we're on the right side of being pro-environment," Cardenas told reporters. "I think we have to be on the right side of pro-business, and that's a balancing act." 

Moreno said he is confident the environmental committee will advance the measure and contends he has the required votes to pass the ordinance through the full city council. In the meantime, the alderman said he will look at extending the ordinance's current 60-day compliance period for businesses.

But is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on board with the ban-the-bag legislation?

"I think the mayor is taking a look at this hearing and taking a look at the support that we have," Moreno told reporters Tuesday. "He hasn't taken a solid position on it one way or the other."

Cardenas added that he thinks "the mayor definitely wants something done on the environment."

About 3.7 million plastic bags are used across Chicago each day, which comes out to be about 3 billion bags annually.

Plastic bags are problematic because they do not biodegrade, and over time they break down to smaller, toxic pieces that contaminate the water and soil, Moreno's ordinance reads. Additionally, plastic bags get stuck in drains, clog landfills and cause other environmental headaches. Worldwide, plastic bag production requires more than 12 million barrels of oil annually, the ordinance states.

More than six years ago, Chicago Alds. Ed Burke (14th) and Margaret Laurino (39th) pushed for a citywide plastic bag ban, but instead, the council passed a recycling-related measure in 2008. Under that current ordinance, certain retailers, such as grocery stores, have to provide at-store recycling programs for plastic bags and film. Moreno said 1.5 percent of the 3 billion bags that are used each year in Chicago are recycled, and that's a "shameful number."

Glen Princen with the Chicago chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group, said he is glad to see the plastic bag reduction measure picking up steam.

"Countries have banned this bag, and if this one city can't do it, it speaks volumes to the way things work in this city," Princen told Progress Illinois after he testified at the hearing. "We were close a few years ago ... then it just suddenly went away."

U.S. cities like Portland and Seattle, among others, already outlaw plastic carryout bags. 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.

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA), which believes banning plastic bags is essentially a tax on retailers, is opposed to Moreno's ordinance. IRMA's Vice President and General Counsel Tanya Triche claims that stores might have to hike their prices in order to comply with the proposed regulations. A plastic bag, she said, costs a retailer roughly 3 cents. By comparison, paper bags cost about 10 cents and biodegradable bags start at about 15 cents.

"When you raise the cost of doing business here, it makes it very difficult to convince stores to come to certain neighborhoods," Triche told the committee members. "Those of you who are in food deserts, and those of you who have spoken to your colleagues who are in food deserts, understand this first-hand. You can't say on one hand, 'We really want you to locate here,' and then on the other hand say, 'We're going to raise your cost to do business here. We understand that it's probably less expensive to do business elsewhere, particularly in the suburbs, but we still want your business.' It doesn't work that way."

IRMA is calling on aldermen to approve a tax, at 5 cents or 10 cents, on paper bags. Without a paper bag tax, there is no incentive for consumers to bring their own reusable bags to stores, IRMA argues. Such fees, Triche said, have been imposed in various cities that have banned plastic bags.

Cardenas told reporters that he does not support imposing a citywide levy on paper bags. Moreno noted that Chicago retailers would be free to charge their own fee on paper or other non-plastic bags if they want. 

But Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) thinks the ordinance, if approved, will be the final "nail in the coffin" for struggling small retailers, and just one more reason for businesses to pack up and move to "less restrictive governments." 

"Make no mistake about it, North Side, South Side, East Side, West Side, all of our small businesses are struggling right now," the alderman said. "These businesses are exactly what we need more of in Chicago. They pay property taxes. They generate sales tax revenue ... Enough is enough. We need to leave our small businesses alone. We need to work together."

Triche also pointed to the large number of jobs that are specifically tied to grocery stores.

"There are hundreds of people who lost their jobs because of Dominick's leaving the market" for various reasons, she said. "We’re talking about how important grocery stores are to communities. We’re talking about how important they are to jobs, and we’re talking about the things that you all do that have a negative effect on job creation."

Moreno quickly fired back, saying that Triche should be "ashamed of herself" for trying to "scare" committee members into believing stores could close as a result of the ordinance.

"Right now, these plastic bags are costing Chicago taxpayers millions when we have to clean up our trees, we have to clean up our wards, we have to unclog our sewers, they go in our landfills, they are already costing us, and your association has worked tirelessly in the state of Illinois to try to have no bans," Moreno told Triche. "What we are talking about today started in (2008). Your industry has had six years — six years — to come up with a comprehensive ... solution, and nothing has changed."

"There has not been one study in the United States or in the world that has shown that banning these bags are bad for business," the alderman continued. "It's a scare tactic, and it has no evidence behind it."

Under the proposed ordinance, stores that continue to provide plastic bags to customers would see a $300 to $500 fine for each offense. And failing to provide customers with reusable bags would come with a $100 to $300 fee for each offense.

At the hearing, opponents of the legislation said the city of Chicago would probably be sued if the ordinance is approved. But the threat of a lawsuit, Cardenas said, is not going to hold back the ordinance.

"We've got to write the legislation so that it's gonna stand, and the likelihood of [a] lawsuit will be minimized," the alderman said.

Stay tuned.


Log in or register to post comments