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Council Mulls Closing Plastic Bag Ban Loophole, Perhaps With Tax

By Ted Cox | July 23, 2015 4:51pm
 This plastic-bag monster may have to return to City Hall to close a loophole in the city's ban.
This plastic-bag monster may have to return to City Hall to close a loophole in the city's ban.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — Talk about recycling: the city's ban on plastic shopping bags hasn't even taken effect, and aldermen are already talking about revisiting it to close an apparent loophole.

"We're gonna go back and review it," Ald. George Cardenas (12th) said Thursday. Cardenas is chairman of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection, which originally passed the bag ban a year ago.

The City Council signed off on the ban last year, but it wasn't slated to take effect until Aug. 1, 2015, for supermarkets and so-called big-box outlets of more than 10,000 square feet. Smaller chain outlets, such as 7-Elevens, were granted an additional year to comply, while smaller mom-and-pop outlets were left exempt.

"It's time to get more severe," says Ald. George Cardenas.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Since then, however, some chains have developed what Cardenas called "reusable plastic bags," slightly heavier than the plastic grocery bags famed for getting caught in trees, when they aren't being used by dutiful dog owners to scoop pooch poop. Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), lead sponsor of the original ordinance, identified Jewel-Osco as the "prime" offender.

"We're following the ordinance set up by the City of Chicago," said Jewel spokeswoman Mary Frances Bragiel.

According to Bragiel, a week from Saturday the 35 Jewels in the city will begin offering slightly bulkier plastic bags that can carry 22 pounds and can be reused an estimated 125 times. The chain also sells "reusable" plastic bags for 10 cents, as well as more durable bags for a higher cost.

"I'm pleased with a majority of what we see," Moreno said of the response leading up to implementation. Yet he accused Jewel-Osco of being "stuck in the old economy, and they don't get it."

The controversy stems from a loophole in the language allowing "reusable bags, recyclable paper bags or any combination thereof." The city has set minimum standards for reusable bags, but Moreno said he finds it "very odd" that the Jewel bags meet those exact minimums.

"Really, providing the consumer the option of just another plastic bag is not what we intended to do," Cardenas said. "Folks are just going around the intent of the law, keeping plastic bags in the waste stream."

According to Moreno, the average Chicagoan takes home 500 bags a year, which translates to 3.7 million a day citywide.

"To me, in my opinion, it's time to get more severe," Cardenas said. Although aldermen initially resisted an idea to charge a fee for heavier bags genuinely intended to be reused again and again, because industry groups like the Illinois Retail Merchants Association called it a "tax," Cardenas said that may be a way to close the loophole.

"It may be something now, from a recycling standpoint, that we do impose a recycling fee," he added. "If it becomes a tax, maybe that's what we'll call it. Maybe we'll just have to impose a recycling fee."

"I'm not there yet," Moreno said. "We've learned from other cities. Fees or whatnot may change behavior in the short term, but we also have evidence that in the long term consumers just swallow the fee, and the behavior isn't really changed."

Moreno said they'd be watching to see how actual implementation goes, then act to alter the ordinance — perhaps by changing the language to reset the standards, perhaps by imposing a fee.

In any case, it looks as if the plastic-bag ban will soon be recycled itself.

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