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Chicago's Plastic Bag Tax Is Working — Big Time, Study Shows

By  Heather Cherone and Patty Wetli | April 24, 2017 1:00pm | Updated on April 24, 2017 1:30pm

 The mayor signaled a possible compromise Monday on a proposed ban on plastic grocery bags.
The mayor signaled a possible compromise Monday on a proposed ban on plastic grocery bags.
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CITY HALL — The number of plastic and paper bags Chicagoans used to haul home their groceries dropped 42 percent in the first month after city officials imposed a 7-cents per bag tax in an effort to keep the disposable sacks out of area landfills.

The study paid for by the city — and conducted by ideas42, a behavior design lab, as well as researchers from New York University and the University of Chicago Energy and Environment Lab —measured plastic and paper bag use at large grocery stores in Chicago one month before and one month after the tax was imposed.

"I am glad so many Chicagoans are choosing to forgo paper or plastic bags at checkout, and encourage others to help Chicago further reduce disposable bag use in the city,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “By decreasing our paper and plastic bag use, Chicago is making important progress in reducing our carbon footprint as well as reducing street litter and improving recycling operations.”

Before the tax went into effect Feb. 1, shoppers took home an average of 2.3 disposable bags every time they shopped at a big grocery store. After the tax went into effect, shoppers took home one fewer bag, according to the study.

Jordan Parker, the founder of Bring Your Bag Chicago, an advocacy group that helped shape the city's tax, said she was thrilled city officials were using data to evaluate the law. The group has reformed as a nonprofit dubbed Green City Campaigns, and plans to work across the nation.

"It's perceived as a little needle, a little dig." Parker said. "And people don't like that pinprick."

Of the 14,168 Chicago shoppers surveyed, only 49 percent used at least one disposable bag — down from the 82 percent who used at least one disposable bag every time they went to the grocery story before the tax went into effect.

Parker credited store cashiers with the tax's success — by asking whether shoppers want to buy a bag, they are forcing everyone to consider their behavior.

But Parker said she was concerned that once the initial shock of "people feeling offended" by the tax wears off the numbers will creep back up as people adjust or businesses absorb the cost.

"The next most important question is how many times people are reusing their reusable bag," Parker said. "We want to see a lifestyle shift. We want to see people integrating reusable bags into their routine and using them hundreds of times."

Illinois Environmental Council Executive Director Jen Walling said the study proved the tax was working.

"We've all seen where disposable bags often end up — wrapped around trees and bushes, in Lake Michigan or the Chicago River, blowing around on windy days," Walling said. Hopefully the reduction we've seen so far is a first step in getting all of these bags out of our environment."

In addition, the number of Chicagoans who brought a reusable tote to the grocery store rose 20 percent, according to the study.

A central part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's 2017 spending plan, the tax on plastic and paper bags was expected to add $9.2 million to the city's coffers.

The tax was prompted after the city's ban on single-use, thin plastic bags approved by the council in 2014 is largely considered a failure.

The city gets a nickel from the sale of each bag, with the store owner getting the other two cents.