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Is Chicago's Plastic Bag Ban Working? No, Advocates Say — People Must Pay

By Kelly Bauer | February 5, 2016 7:13am | Updated on February 5, 2016 5:51pm
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The city's "plastic bag ban" hasn't worked, said an activist group, because it allows retailers to offer thicker (and more wasteful) plastic bags for free.
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DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin

DOWNTOWN — The city’s plastic bag ban isn’t working, activists say, but fining customers 10 cents per grocery bag could fix that.

The ban, implemented in August, forced large retailers to stop using single-use, thin plastic bags. While some stores turned to paper bags or pushed customers to bring reusable bags, others implemented bags made out of thicker plastic.

RELATED: Jewel 'Bag Shames' Customers Into Bring Reusable Bags — And It's Working

Those are even worse for the environment than the old plastic bags, said activist Jordan Parker, since they use more plastic and customers are still tossing them after one use. Parker is the founder of Bring Your Bag Chicago, which advocates using reusable bags as an environmentally friendly alternative to one-use plastic or paper options.

There’s no hard data or studies to determine if fewer plastic and paper bags are being used by Chicago’s shoppers under the ban, Parker said, but she said she thinks many customers are continuing to rely on free bags. Those bags are meant to be reusable, but most customers toss them after one use since that’s what they did with the old, thinner bags, Parker said.

“Consumers just start treating whatever bag is provided for free as a single-use bag,” Parker said. “It’s worse for the environment because it’s more plastic or it’s paper, which has its own carbon footprint.”

Chicagoans were using 500 one-use plastic bags per year, on average, Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) said in April. Moreno did not respond to requests for comment.

Jewel-Osco customer Kaitlyn Baker said it's hard to remember to bring recyclable bags to grocery stores, especially since the stores aren't close to her South Side home, and she doesn't usually bring them. She was given paper bags for free at Jewel on Wednesday.

Parker and Bring Your Bag Chicago hope to secure funding for a study that would research how Chicagoans use one-use and reusable bags after and before the plastic bag ban. No study was done before the plastic bag ban was put in place, and no study has been done since, Parker said. Earlier this week, Parker told WBEZ Moreno had not consulted environmental groups about amendments he has proposed to the plastic bag ban.

Bring Your Bag Chicago also is working on an amendment to the plastic bag ban that would make it more environmentally friendly. Under its proposal, customers would have to pay 10 cents for every plastic (thick or thin) or paper bag they use, pushing them to use reusable bags, Parker said.

“If there’s a fee charged for that bag, that triggers awareness, and that changes consumer behavior,” Parker said.

The money raised through the fee would be put in a fund managed by the city and an environmental organization, with the money going to community groups to educate consumers about reusable bags and to clean up waterways, Parker said.

The group also plans to suggest the city repeal an upcoming ban that would prevent chain stores smaller than 10,000 square feet from using single-use, thin plastic bags. They suggest those stores still be able to use the bags, which are cheaper and use fewer resources, but all stores would still have to charge customers the 10-cents-per-bag fee.

Bring Your Bag Chicago hopes to have the amendment passed in April and in effect on Aug. 1, Parker said. The group already has spoken with 20 aldermen and found them "supportive" of the changes, Parker said.

Another way Chicago could cut down on bags: Grocery chains can provide more education for staff and customers, Parker said.

At Jewel-Osco, cashiers or baggers ask customers, “Did you remember your bags today?” That one question is “the most important thing that can be done at the point of sale,” Parker said.

Right now, people think it's OK to use single-use bags because "most other people are forgetting their bags" and are getting free ones from stores, Parker said, and that needs to change.

"We need to buy into this shift," Parker said. "We need to ask ourselves, 'Is this a better way of doing things?' And if we believe that it is then we need to start adopting that new behavior."

Here's what major chains said about their bags:

• Whole Foods hasn’t used plastic bags since 2008, and it gives 10 cents back to customers who bring reusable bags to the store, spokeswoman Allison Phelps said. Customers without bags receive free paper bags.

• Mariano’s gives 5 cents back to customers who bring reusable bags to the store, and it offers paper bags for free, said James Hyland, vice president of corporate communications and public affairs.

• Target gives customers free, reusable plastic bags and offers a 5 cent discount per bag to those who bring reusable bags, spokeswoman Angie Thompson said. Target launched its reusable bag program in 2009; since then, customers have used 190 million reusable bags instead of using paper or plastic bags, Thompson said.

• Jewel-Osco has seen a “significant decrease” in the number of plastic bags being used in its stores thanks to education and training, spokeswoman Mary Frances Trucco said. Customers are encouraged to bring reusable bags or return plastic bags to recycle, Trucco said.

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