Does Chicago’s Plastic Bag Ban Carry Real Weight?

Chicago's plastic bag ban is now fully in effect. As of Aug. 1, the city's ordinance regulating the provision of plastic bags applies not only to larger retailers but also smaller mom-and-pop style operations.

Stores may still supply plastic bags, but they must be the thicker, reusable kind and not the flimsy, one-use bags.

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But critics charge that Chicago's ordinance is counterproductive because many stores still give away the thicker plastic bags, creating little incentive for customers to reuse them.

So, is the ban having the desired effect of reducing plastic pollution or does the ordinance need fixing?

“The way the ordinance was written, retailers were still allowed to give away thicker, reusable plastic bags for free,” said Jordan Parker, executive director of Bring Your Bag Chicago, an environmental group that works to pass legislation and raise awareness around issues of plastic pollution. “So the problem is that retailers just switched to a thicker plastic bag and now there’s actually more plastic waste in our waste stream and in our landfills than there was before and there’s also an increase in paper bag waste as well.”

Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel at the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, agrees that the ban didn't effectively address the intended issues.

“We think that it has been a real hardship, particularly for the grocery sector,” Triche said. “What the city passed wasn’t going to do anything for the environment and instead what it was going to do was increase costs on grocery stores.”

Triche points out that before Chicago's ordinance was passed, the IRMA recommended adding a fee for reusable bags. “Putting a fee on the bag, studies have shown, gets people to really think twice as to whether they would like to take a bag or remember to bring a bag themselves,” she said. 

Parker suggests a 10-cent fee per bag would simplify the process for both consumers and retailers. “We have a lot of data that shows the ban plus fee model or the straight fee model works at reducing plastic bag and disposal bag usage across the board,” she said. 

As to whether City Council will amend the ordinance, Triche is uncertain. “Politicians generally are hesitant to apply fees; we in the business community are reluctant to apply fees–especially in this environment,” she said.

“This issue was created by the mayor’s office and the City Council and it’s one that could be fixed.”

Related stories:

Chicago’s Plastic Bag Ban Extended to Smaller Chain Stores

Aug. 1: As of Monday, chain stores that are 10,000 square feet or less must comply with the city's plastic bag ban originally enacted a year ago.

Recycling in Chicago: No More Plastic Bags, Says City

Jan. 6: Starting Jan. 1, items placed in the city’s blue recycling carts must be loose. That means no plastic bags. Learn more about Chicago's rules for recycling.

Rethinking Chicago's Plastic Bag Ban

Sept. 24, 2015: The plastic bag ordinance that took effect Aug. 1 may not be having the impact that was intended, as retailers begin to offer thicker plastic bags in place of the older, thinner ones.

What You Need to Know About the Plastic Bag Ban

July 30, 2015: The city of Chicago's partial ban on plastic bags is now in place, but the ordinance as it's currently written will still allow stores to give out plastic bags, provided they meet certain standards. We discuss the new rules and proposed changes to them.

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