Rethinking Chicago's Plastic Bag Ban

The last time you headed out to a grocery store in Chicago, did you remember to bring your reusable bags?

The city's ordinance banning plastic bags went into effect almost two months ago, but some environmental advocates argue it's not having the intended effect. At a Chicago City Council meeting on Thursday, an amendment was introduced to address the issue.

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Ald. Joe Moreno (1st Ward) was one of the lead sponsors of the original ordinance back when it was introduced. The purpose of the law was to reduce plastic bag use, but because the law has an allowance that considers plastic bags of a certain thickness to be reusable, many retailers are still offering plastic bags to their customers.

Environmentalists say this is the exact opposite of what was intended. Though manufacturers say the bags should be reused, critics say that practice isn’t advertised or encouraged as much as it should be.

Critics also say there are alternatives to using plastic. One such alternative is the compostable bag, which is like plastic, but made from vegetable starch and corn starch.

“They have the same amount of strength as your regular plastic bag,” said Camilo Ferro of Renew Packaging. “What we try to do is, if folks are carrying a compostable bag, educate people on composting.”

Moreno on Thursday said he's disappointed with retailers who've started using the plastic bag – even though it's allowed under the ordinance. He said he thinks they've ignored the spirit of the law.

So, rather than ruling the bags out entirely, the amendment would increase the thickness of the plastic bags allowed under the law, to 10 mm thick.

The idea is that the cost of these thicker bags would be prohibitive to retailers, and they'd have to find an alternative.

But Moreno is also striking the allowance for compostable bags, because he says the city doesn't have the industrial composting facility needed for those bags to be environmentally effective.

Though the law says when customers have access to curbside composting, then retailers could use the compostable bags – that part's not entirely clear, because Ferro said that Chicagoans do have access to curbside composting.

"Composting is happening here in the city of Chicago," Ferro said. "Anywhere you live in the city of Chicago you can get your compost picked up."

Meanwhile, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association argues retailers began offering the thicker bags because that's what customers told them they wanted.

"A lot of customers in the city of Chicago walk to the grocery store or take public transportation," said Tanya Triche of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. "They want something that works good in all weather conditions and that allows them to carry more things at one time. Plastic bags generally allow them to do that.

“Regardless of which bag the customer uses, we encourage our customers to reuse the bag.”

Although other cities require customers to pay a fee for plastic bags, Chicago is not considering that.

Interestingly, it is the one method that both retailers and environmentalists mentioned as an effective way of getting customers to change their habits and remember to bring reusable bags to the store.

One of them, Jen Walling at the Illinois Environmental Council, argues that since the mayor's budget address this week included a $9.50 garbage pick-up fee, this is a good time to reconsider how we dispose of trash altogether.

“The city needs to look at how we are dealing with waste and litter issues in a way that’s the most environmentally friendly,” said Walling. “If we’re going to talk about things like redoing the plastic bag ban or a possible trash tax, we need to talk about how we incentivize recycling and composting, and incentivize bringing those businesses to Chicago.”

The difference in the price of these bags depends on who you ask. The thinner bags that are no longer allowed were about 3 cents per bag. The thicker bags that are being used today cost around 7 to 12 cents, and the compostable bags are about 5.5 to 8 cents apiece.

The bag ban: What you need to know

Since Aug. 1, the city of Chicago is among more than 100 counties and municipalities across the nation that have enacted legislation to discourage or prohibit the distribution of single-use plastic bags.

Not all bag-ban laws are the same, however.

Some cities charge customers a small fee to use plastic bags and offer nominal discounts as an incentive for bringing reusable bags. Others have imposed taxes on the bags or banned their use completely.

Jordan Parker, founder of the grassroots environmental movement Bring Your Bag Chicago, weighs in on these types of ordinances and how Chicago's new law stacks up, below.

But first, here’s what you need to know before heading to the store next month.

What stores will be affected by the plastic bag ban?

First and foremost, the ban affects chain stores, which the City has defined as three or more stores under common ownership or any store that’s part of a franchise. The ban beginning August 1  will apply to stores with a floor area greater than 10,000 square feet. The rules will be extended to stores with a floor area of 10,000 square feet or fewer on August 1, 2016.

The ordinance does not apply to any stores that are not considered a “chain store” or any dine-in or take-out restaurants.

Does this mean some stores will no longer provide bags?

No. Unless the store didn’t previously provide bags (Costco, for example), stores will still have bags for its customers to use; the bags will just be a little different. If stores still plan to provide bags for customers, they must be reusable bags, recyclable paper bags, or commercially compostable plastic bags.

Will I be charged for using their bags?

Maybe, maybe not. That’s up to retailers. Some may sell the bags for a small fee (a practice already in place at Aldi) but others may choose to distribute them for free.

Customers are allowed to bring whatever kind of bags or boxes they want into the store for their own use. So whether you’ve got reusable cloth bags or a stash of plastic ones at home, you can bring them with you to carry your things. Some stores — including Target, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s — already give customers small discounts for bringing their own bags and have said they plan to continue doing so after the ban is in place.

Yikes. I always forget to bring my own!

Fear not: Many stores plan to take advantage of what seems like a loophole to the law by offering thicker, more durable plastic bags that are still permitted under the city’s specifications.

But doesn’t this law ban plastic bags? How is that allowed?

The ordinance provides specifications for what constitutes a “reusable bag": The bag must have handles and be specifically designed and built to be used and reused multiple times. Lawmakers have gone so far as to mandate a minimum lifetime of 125 uses, which they’ve defined as the ability to carry at least 22 pounds over a distance of at least 175 feet 125 times.

Reusable bags cannot contain certain chemicals including lead or cadmium, but the law does not explicitly state that they may not be made of plastic — in fact, quite the opposite: “If made of plastic, the reusable bag must be a minimum of at least 2.25 mils thick.”

What about paper bags?

Paper bags are not completely green either. It takes a lot of (and often more) energy and water to produce a paper bag rather than plastic, in addition to emiting higher amounts of air pollution. The process to recycle paper uses more fuel than it would take to actually make a new bag. The EPA has also found that paper and plastic take about the same amount of time to degrade in a landfill.

How will the rules be enforced? What happens if a retailer fails to comply?

Citizens are asked to report violations by calling 311 and providing the name and address of the store. City inspectors are going to focus on the visible requirements, such as whether a bag has handles and contains the required printed information on it. The city may periodically audit retailers by sending bags to a lab for more in-depth analysis of the bag’s composition.

Depending on which section of the ordinance they violate, offenders are subject to a fine between $100 and $500.

-- Steffie Drucker

On July 30, "Chicago Tonight" discussed the new rules surrounding the city's partial ban on plastic bags, and proposed changes to them. Watch the discussion below.

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