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City's Plastic Bag Ban Gets Serious: Rahm Proposes 7 Cent-Per-Bag Tax

By  Kelly Bauer and DNAinfo Staff | October 11, 2016 12:20pm 

 A plastic bag monster was used to lobby for a ban at a City Council hearing last year.
A plastic bag monster was used to lobby for a ban at a City Council hearing last year.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

DOWNTOWN  — It's time to stock your car with reusable bags.

If you don't, get ready to pay 7 cents for every plastic one you take home. 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave his 2017 budget address Tuesday, and in it highlighted money for police officers, schools and summer jobs for kids.

To pay for these things, Emanuel has proposed hiking water taxes and sewer services, and a 7 cent-per-plastic bag fee. The "plastic bag ban" implemented by the city last year "failed," with stores paying more for heavier-duty plastic bags while customers rarely reused them, said Tanya Triche, vice president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

The proposed fee could motivate people to get on board and start reusing bags — and if they don't, the city gets 5 of every 7 cents collected. The rest would go to merchants who have to pay for thicker plastic or paper bags due to the 2015 plastic bag ordinance. 

The Illinois Retail Merchants Association thinks the fee could raise $8 million-$10 million per year, Triche said.

The change could also help the environment, said Triche. The "plastic bag ban" put more plastic into the environment because stores got around the ban on thin, single-use plastic bags by giving customers thicker plastic bags, but customers rarely reused them, Triche said.

Bring Your Bag Chicago, which advocates using reusable bags as an environmentally friendly alternative to one-use plastic or paper options, hopes the fee will get people to use reusable bags because they'll eventually get sick of paying 7 cents for plastic bags.

"... It gets people's attention and it's a small amount of money, and that's going to eventually cause people to change their behavior because they'll get tired of paying 7 cents over and over and over," said Jordan Parker, founder of Bring Your Bag Chicago. "I don't think that [plastic bag ban] ordinance was entirely in vain. It's been proven to fail in terms of what it was supposed to do, but it did create heightened awareness around this issue, and it did pave the way for stronger policy that made more snse."

Ideally, Chicagoans will start using cloth bags that can be folded up, carried around, washed and reused, Parker said.

But Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) thinks the proposed change would be a step back because it would allow stores to use thin plastic bags again. People might be annoyed by the 7-cent fee at first, he said, but eventually they'll accept it and will keep using single-use plastic bags instead of switching to reusable bags.

Ultimately, the goal is to get people to bring their own bags to stores and not use plastic bags, Moreno said.

“At first, consumers are going to say, ‘Oh my God, I got an extra 7 cents on my receipt.’ But after a while they’re just going to swallow that cost and nothing changes,” Moreno said. “It’s a change in behavior that we need, not a change in product.”

Moreno, who had been a proponent of the ban on one-use plastic bags, now wants to see all plastic bags banned. Stores could then provide paper bags for a 10- to 15-cent fee or tax, he said, while the city and stores provide more education to customers so they start using reusable bags.

An example of education customers need, Moreno said: Jewel-Osco has signs in its parking lots reminding customers to take reusable bags from their cars and bring them into the store.

Last month, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce slammed the plastic bag tax, saying it hurts small businesses and contributes to Chicago's "unfriendly" climate for small businesses.

"Over the last two years, neighborhood businesses have faced numerous taxes, fees and mandates such as more than a $1 billion increase in Chicago property taxes paired with increased water and sewer fees, Chicago’s $13 per hour starting wage ordinance, another one percent Cook County sales tax increase resulting in the highest sales tax rate in the nation, a plastic bag 'ban,' and a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products that has driven customers to surrounding counties and states," the Chamber said in a statement.

The bag fee, which has not yet been approved by the City Council, would go into effect next year if approved. Parker, of Bring Your Bag Chicago, said the group hopes it will go into effect as soon as possible.

Earlier this year, environmental activists and shop owners slammed the city's existing ban, saying it creates even more waste and cost than before it was passed. 

The current ordinance 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.

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

Parker said a fee "triggers awareness, and that changes consumer behavior." 

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