NW Side aldermen discuss ban on plastic bags


Several Northwest Side aldermen voted against the ban on the use of plastic bags in retail stores, but the City Council approved the ordinance by a 36-10 vote at its meeting April 30.

The ordinance will ban the use of plastic bags at chains with three or more stores owned by a common ownership or at any store that is part of a franchise. Restaurants and smaller stores will still be allowed to provide plastic bags.

The ban is expected to take effect on Aug. 1, 2015, for stores with an area that exceeds 10,000 square feet and on Aug. 1, 2016, for stores with an area that is less than 10,000 square feet.

Fines will range from $300 to $500 for stores that continue to use plastic bags and from $100 to $300 for stores that do not provide reusable bags, recyclable paper bags or compostable plastic bags.

Stores will be able to charge fees for the use of paper bags, and they will be required to establish in-store recycling programs and to file annual reports. Most large chain stores already have in-store recycling programs.

Alderman John Arena (45th) said that he supports the ban and that he has worked with the one of the bill’s sponsors, Alderman Joe Moreno (1st).

The purpose of the ordinance is to reduce the toxicity of materials in the solid waste stream because plastic bags are not biodegradable and they break down into small bits that contaminate soil and waterways and enter into the food supply of land and marine life.

Arena said that production of plastic bags also uses millions of barrels of oil per year, which he said has a significant effect on the environment. "The sheer number of bags that are out there means that we need to do something to save the environment," he said.

"It’s a modern environmental issue," Arena said. "Other countries and states have taken similar steps, and it will foster innovation so that we have a more innovative product. There are better products out there and there are better options out there that are available to consumers."

"We have a very abysmal plastic bag recycling program, and I’ve spoken to many managers of these big stores who say that they collect the bags but that at the end of the day they just throw them away," Arena said.

However, several Northwest Side aldermen voted against the ordinance.

Alderman Timothy Cullerton (38th) initially said that most residents of his ward do not support a plastic bag ban, but after talking to more constituents, he changed his mind and voted in favor of the ordinance.

"I would prefer to take a look at it to see if we can do something about recycling them better instead of rushing through this," Cullerton said last week. "A lot of people use them. Dog lovers really like them."

"I don’t see that many plastic bags blowing in the wind in my ward," Cullerton said. "I see way more McDonald’s wrappers and other things."

Cullerton said that the ban would affect jobs and bring grocery costs up. "I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do," he said. "People will continue to get their bags from somewhere. If not in the city, then the suburbs."

However, Cullerton said that his position has changed since last week. He said he posted a comment online that said that most ward residents he spoke to opposed the ban but that most of the responses to the comment were in favor of the ban.

"They amended the ordinance, and I think even IRMA (Illinois Retailer Merchants Association) had softened their stance," Cullerton said. "I think we all realized that this would pass.

"It’s not a perfect solution, and some people will be upset about the bags, but I think we can learn to use reusable bags. You’ve got to pick your battles, and I realized that voting no wouldn’t accomplish anything."

Alderman Nicholas Sposato (36th) also said that he would vote against the measure. "Frankly, a lot of people think that this is a stupid ordinance and instead of dealing with major problems like pensions and crime, we bring this up," Sposato said.

Sposato said the ban would place a burden on businesses that will result in a "hidden tax" on consumers in the form of either raised food prices or costs for alternative bags.

"In the committee, and I’m not kidding, they said that it costs $3,000 to remove a bag from a tree," Sposato said. "I don’t see that many bags in the trees in my ward either. I drove down Harlem Avenue looking for bags because sometimes you miss it. (I saw) maybe one bag."

Alderman Mary O’Connor (41st) said that she would not support the ordinance because her ward has many surrounding suburbs that compete for business and she does not want to give residents any more reasons to go outside the city to shop.

"Ultimately I think the cost will be passed onto the consumer," O’Connor said. "If it was statewide or countywide, then maybe I would take a look at it, but right now I don’t think that this is the right thing to do."

"They did make some amendments to the original ordinance, but I think retailers like Walgreens, 7-Eleven, CVS or Jewel will be hit by this thing," O’Connor said, adding that she also has not seen plastic bags litter her ward. "It was more soda cans, candy wrappers and other garbage," she said.

Other Northwest Side aldermen who voted against the ordinance were aldermen Deborah Mitts (29th) and Ariel Reboyras (30th).

Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th) said that she voted for the ban because the ordinance gives smaller stores until 2016 to comply and that small mom-and-pop shops are exempt from the ban.

"I suspected that there would be enough support in the council and the votes are there," Laurino said. Laurino said that she had a small number of calls from people who opposed the ordinance, but said that big chain stores like Costco or Aldi already don’t provide plastic bags, but boxes or other options and people know how to deal with it.

"This won’t fully take effect until 2016 so I think people have time to adjust," Laurino said.

Laurino said that she supported an ordinance a few years ago that required big stores to provide in-store recycling and bag collection. "All stores had to have containers where people could come in with their plastics bags."

Alderman Deborah Mell (33rd) said that she had received calls from constituents on both sides of the issue, but she decided to vote for it.

"It’s the new economy and I think that we as a city have to be on the forefront to get rid of these bags," Mell said. "What was interesting to me was that it wasn’t so much people being angry about not getting the bags at the stores, but about what they would use to clean up after their dogs."

Mell said that there is proof "out there that it doesn’t harm business" and that the bans help save money on recycling costs.

A study conducted last year by the National Center for Policy Analysis examined several bag bans that were passed in recent years, including in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, and found that there was no evidence of a reduction in costs that were attributable to the reduced use of plastics bags.

The study found that advocates who support the bans often have given a number of justifications for placing restrictions on consumers’ use of carry-out plastic bags such as scarce resources used to create the bags, environmental harm when they are disposed of improperly, roadside litter and the cost of disposing or recycling them. The study conducted a cost analysis of the bans and found that the bans do not have a meaningful impact.

San Francisco, which became the first U.S. city to ban bags in 2007, amended the law in 2012 to include all retail stores and food establishments and added a 10-cent charge on all paper and reusable bags.

The study found that bag disposal and lost revenue cost the city and recycling contractors 17 cents per bag, or $8.49 million per year. However, that lumped paper bags and plastic bags together, which resulted in the cost increase because paper bags are six times heavier and take up 10 times more space in a landfill.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that plastic bags account for less than 0.5 percent of the waste stream and are completely recyclable, according to the study. According to the American Chemistry Council, the use of paper bags doubles the amount of carbon dioxide in the air versus the use of plastic bags.

However, Arena said that oil companies that produce plastic bags would argue that the ordinance would not have a big environmental impact.

"They will argue that plastic is good and degradable, but it just degrades into smaller plastic," Arena said. "In reality, plastic is an eternal product. This offers us a chance to change consumer behavior so that people can make better choices."