City Council panel passes plastic bag ban

April 24, 2014

AP/File
Chicago aldermen are considering whether to bar retail chains in the city from handing out plastic carryout bags to customers.

Big grocery stores and franchise retailers would be barred from giving out plastic bags to customers under a proposal approved Thursday by a Chicago City Council committee.

After months of negotiations and eventual buy-in from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the City Council’s Health and Environment Committee approved a scaled-back version of the plastic bag ban that has long been pushed by 1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno. 

“We use three billion - billion with a ‘b’ - of these [bags] every year,” Moreno said. “And, um, it’s the old economy. These bags are terrible for the environment, terrible for our litter, and there’s a better way and we’re moving forward on that.”

The ordinance still needs approval from the full City Council, which could happen as soon as next week.

The compromise ordinance would prohibit both franchise retailers and groups of “chain” stores - defined as three or more stores with the same owner - from distributing plastic carryout bags to customers. The stores would also be required to provide or sell recyclable paper bags, reusable bags or compostable plastic bags as an alternative.

The latest version of the plastic bag ban would not apply to independently-owned stores or restaurants, following concerns from some aldermen and industry groups that an outright prohibition would hurt mom-and-pop businesses who choose cheap plastic bags over more expensive types.

Stores that continue to distribute the banned bags would face fines of up to $500. Moreno is trying to sell the proposed ban as an environmentally friendly measure.

“I think it’s our role, whether it’s DDT or other chemicals, or coal-fired power plants [or] plastic bags made from natural gas - when the industry’s not ready to move into...our century, then we have to act,” Moreno said.

But some industry and business groups aren’t buying it.

Supporters of the ban are overstating plastic bags’ detrimental environmental effects, charges Jonathan Perman, a spokesman for the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based plastic bag lobbying group. He points to a 2010 City Hall study that found “grocery and merchandise bags” accounted for less than one percent of the trash tonnage produced by Chicagoans.

Perman’s group estimates there are about 3,000 jobs tied to the plastic bag manufacturing industry in Illinois. He said a ban would hurt business.

“What we’re doing in Chicago is we’re making an absolutely absurd trade by saying we’re gonna ban a product that’s made in Chicago, and instead encourage people to use a synthetic or cloth or cotton bag that’s imported from Asia,” Perman said Thursday.

If approved by the full City Council next week, large stores over 10,000 square feet would be forced to stop handing out plastic bags by August 2015. Chain stores smaller than that would have an additional year to ditch the bags.