Big Apple's Lesson For Chicago Bag Ordinance

April 22, 2008

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This plastic bag's spent many days stuck in a tree near Chicago's Warren Park. (WBEZ/Shawn Allee)
Plastic bags account for less than one percent of landfill space, but Chicago aldermen are taking aim at them anyway. Next month, the Chicago City Council's likely to require some stores to recycle plastic sacks. Like it does with a lot of ordinances, Chicago's cribbing off another city's legislative work—in this case, New York's. However, in some ways the latest version of Chicago's bag recycling ordinance strays from the Big Apple's.

For months, Chicago aldermen have been revising the proposed plastic bag recycling ordinance. It's mostly been a nip-and-tuck job … but there's one part that's had major surgery. Chicago borrowed the bag recycling idea from New York City, so I thought I'd run by a New York councilman.

ambi: beep, beep

ALLEE: Hi there, how are you doing?
VALONE: I'm fine.
ALLEE: I'm doing OK. How do I pronounce your name?
VALONE: Peter Valone Jr.

ALLEE: Here's the thing. As you're aware, Chicago was going to copy, almost verbatim, your ordinance. Lately, though, they had a slight change of heart?

VALONE: Really?
ALLEE: Yeah.
VALONE: I sent them my ordinance to work with, I didn't realize they had a change of heart. What's the change of heart?

Well, Chicago aldermen are likely to radically alter which stores must recycle plastic sacks. At first, Chicago's proposal was like New York's, it covered big stores, stores with more than 5,000 square feet. It would also compel chain-stores with five or more outlets to recycle plastic bags, too. New York covered nearly all retailers— regardless of whether they sold food, electronics or clothes. But now, Chicago wants to include only grocery and drug stores, now matter how big or small.

New York councilman Valone is surprised.

VALONE: We didn't want to include mom-and-pop groceries and those kinds of places. They're struggling here in New York City. The economy, the rents in Manhattan, places like that, and they don't have the resources. So, we thought if a store was over five thousand square feet, they'd be able to not only collect these things, but they also have to arrange to have them recycled, they'd have to set up a deal with a recycler. To come and recycle these plastic bags.

ALLEE: One of the problems we've had in the Chicago situation is, exactly the issue you guys have seemed to address. That is, the smaller stores wouldn't be able to find vendors to take their things to, nor have anyone pick them up.

VALONE: Yep. That's absolutely true, too. They're coming for such a small volume of bags, that it's not worth it, so I'm not sure why they're doing that out there.

LAURINO: Let's look at this as a first step in trying to alleviate plastic bags from the environment.

This is 39th Ward Alderman Margaret Laurino. Laurino helped import New York's recycling ordinance in the first place. She defends Chicago's re-write.

LAURINO: In my mind, if I'm thinking about bringing my plastic bags back to the store, Macy's just doesn't come to mind. If want to recycle my bags, I just want to bring them to the grocery store. 

This is the same rationale a retailing lobbying group gave, too. But again, small grocers worry they can't afford to have small amounts of bags hauled away.

LAURINO: I think they're clearly up to the challenge. 
ALLEE: They seem concerned about it.
LAURINO: Understandably, but I know there's going to be a way they can work this out. And clearly, if it's impossibility, we'll revisit the issue.

Of course, to revisit the issue, the bag recycling ordinance has to pass first, and people on both sides say that's likely to happen in May. That would mean a legislative turnaround of just a few months. Just like what happened in New York.