Chicago aldermen crack down on plastic bags, pedicabs

Chicago aldermen crack down on plastic bags, pedicabs
Grocery shoppers will feel the effects of tougher regulations approved Wednesday by Chicago’s City Council. AP/File
Chicago aldermen crack down on plastic bags, pedicabs
Grocery shoppers will feel the effects of tougher regulations approved Wednesday by Chicago’s City Council. AP/File

Chicago aldermen crack down on plastic bags, pedicabs

Grocery shoppers and pedicab drivers alike will feel the effects of tougher regulations approved Wednesday by Chicago’s City Council.

Aldermen, by a vote of 36 to 10, gave final approval to a partial ban on plastic carryout bags. Several aldermen abstained.

The partial ban, championed for years by 1st Ward Ald. Joe Moreno, had been pitched as an environmentally friendly measure meant to reduce the number of bags stuck in trees and snagged on chain link fences.

“You can’t be a ‘City in the Garden’ and have a set of policies that actually hurt the environment,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel after Wednesday’s vote, echoing Chicago’s city motto.

Under the new law, both franchise retailers and groups of three or more chain stores will no longer be allowed to hand out plastic bags to customers. Retailers must also provide or sell recyclable paper bags, reusable bags or compostable plastic bags as an alternative.

In response to concerns from some aldermen and business groups, the ordinance exempts owners of independent shops from having to ditch their plastic bags. All restaurants are also exempt.

Moreno had originally pushed for an outright ban on plastic bags, and he has said he hopes to tighten restrictions further once a partial ban is in place. Some business groups, including the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, bemoaned the ban, saying paper bags cost three times as much as plastic ones.

The Washington, D.C.-based American Progressive Bag Alliance lobbied against the ordinance, saying it would cost plastic bag manufacturing jobs in Chicago.

Fifth Ward Ald. Leslie Hairston said she was voting against the bag ban because she worries it will increase costs for grocers, arming them with a new excuse not to open shop in her South Shore neighborhood, which already suffers from a dearth of grocery stores.

“I’m watching my community go to hell in a handbasket while rich communities debate plastic bags,” Hairston said during Wednesday’s debate.

“Why would I support an ordinance that limits the food choices I get to make based on the type of bag I get to use?” Hairston said. “Right now, the type of bag I use really doesn’t matter because I can’t buy groceries to put them in. If I voted for this ordinance, where would I bring my bags to shop in my community?”

Big chain stores - larger than 10,000 square feet - have until August 2015 get rid of their plastic bags. Stores smaller than that have until August 2016.

Chicago’s first pedicab regulations

Also on Wednesday, aldermen approved the city’s first-ever regulations on so-called “pedicabs.”

The new restrictions come just in time for warmer spring weather, when the tricycle rickshaw taxis can be seen ferrying passengers to and from baseball games and downtown tourist hotspots.

After years of operating in a legal grey area, the new ordinance imposes restrictions on how, where and when pedicab operators can peddle their trade. It requires operators to get a city-issued $250 license for each pedicab, and drivers to get a $25 “chauffeur” license. Pedicab owners must also buy insurance and they post fare their schedules.

Some in Chicago’s pedicab industry have lauded the move toward some regulations. But other restrictions have drawn protests from pedicab drivers who worry their industry will take a hit.

The ordinance caps the number of pedicab licenses at 200 citywide. In an effort to cut down on congestion, it also bans all pedicabs from riding through part of the Loop during rush hour. They also would be banned entirely from riding on Michigan Avenue and State Street, between Congress Parkway and Oak Street.

“Ninety percent of my time is spent down here in the restricted [area],” said operator Antonio Bustamante, who said he spends 50 to 60 hours a week operating one of the two pedicabs he owns. Bustamante and a handful of other drivers parked their pedicabs on the sidewalk along LaSalle Street outside City Hall after Wednesday's vote, protesting what they see as an unfair restriction on their industry.

“I need to look for another job,” Bustamante said. “I’ll have to sell both of my cabs and move on to something else, which is ridiculous. It’s very upsetting that this is where we are.”

Pet coke ban in place, but Southeast residents aren’t exactly cheering

The Chicago City Council passed an ordinance today that places stricter restrictions on the storage of a product known as pet coke.

Pet coke is stored in large quantities on Chicago’s Southeast side where it arrives by the train load from the nearby BP Refinery in Whiting, Indiana.

Since last summer, residents have pushed loudly for an all out ban, believing it makes them ill when it becomes airborne.

It appeared that the mayor and others agreed but political support for a ban waned in recent months. 10th Ward Alderman John Pope says a ban isn’t legal.

“Obviously, there’s concerns and desires from pretty much everyone to have a ban but legally that’s almost impossible,” Pope said. “So, the next best recourse is I think what we’re doing: Making any new uses impossible and limiting to the three existing operators. It does a lot.”

The largest handler of pet coke, KCBX Terminals Inc., which is owned by the wealthy Koch Brothers,, says its already invested millions in a dust-suppression system so the pet coke doesn’t blow away.

Residents worry that the new law only regulates the storage of pet coke and may invite companies who want to use the product for other uses, such as converting pet coke, considered an energy source, into diesel fuel. Residents, working with national environmental groups, say will continue to push for an all-out ban.

“It is thoroughly unacceptable for these piles to sit just a few hundred yards from people’s houses,” said Southeast Environmental Task Force executive director Peggy Salazar said in a statement. “People are complaining about finding dust from these sites inside their homes. Black dust is coating their houses and probably their lungs. This has to stop.”

Meanwhile, Henry Henderson, Midwest Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the City Council is moving in the right direction but more needs to be done.

“The City is to be commended for attacking the petcoke problem, but a lot more has to be done before Chicagoans who live near sites where petroleum coke and coal have been mounded by their homes, schools and parks can feel safe,” Henderson said in a statement. “The Mayor has been very public in his desire to push this dirty stuff out of Chicago. Given the City’s multi-pronged approach today’s vote is a step forward, but we need ongoing, concerted effort and enforcement to achieve Emanuel’s goal.”

Deferral of rideshare vote

Council members deferred a vote on a set of regulations for controversial ridesharing services until Springfield legislators have a chance to consider state rules for the new industry. Alderman John Arena (45th) asked to “defer and publish” the mayor’s proposed ordinance, with the backing of Aldermen Anthony Beale (9th), Ricardo Munoz (22nd) and Roderick Sawyer (6th). The parliamentary move requires the support of only two aldermen.

“This was clearly an effort to protect taxi owners from competition and preserve the existing taxi monopoly,” said Uber Midwest Regional Director Andrew MacDonald, in a statement released to the media. Uber and Lyft, the two largest ridesharing services in Chicago, favored the proposed regulations. The companies provide smartphone applications to help people use their personal cars for hire.

Scores of Chicago cab drivers gathered in the lobby outside Council Chambers, and let out a big cheer immediately following the deferral. But they still remained uncertain of what city council might do when they reconsider the issue. The drivers also remain concerned about how ridesharing services have cut into their industry.

“Can they still operate as they have been in the past and make money (and) interfere with our money?” asked one driver, who floated the idea of a taxi driver strike. Organizers from the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees told them they would do better to focus their efforts on organizing and lobbying aldermen.

State legislators are expected to consider a much stricter set of standards in the Senate for the ridesharing industry in May.

Alex Keefe is political reporter at WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Michael Puente contributed to this report. You can follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.

Odette Yousef contributed to this report. You can follow her at @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.