Environmentalists came to City Hall on Tuesday to support a proposal to ban plastic bags at Chicago stores, a move retailers say will hurt businesses unless they charge shoppers up to 10 cents for each paper bag that's used instead.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is in Israel this week, is trying to get more information on the environmental and economic impact of a bag ban, according to his administration. History suggests that without the mayor's support, it's unlikely such a proposal will succeed at City Hall.
The proposed ban's sponsor, Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno, 1st, said he thinks that as long as the mayor doesn't come out against it, a majority of his colleagues would support some kind of an ordinance to outlaw stores from packing shoppers' groceries and other products in plastic bags.
A possible compromise was suggested by Ald. George Cardenas, 12th, the council Health Committee chairman, who suggested that plastic bags be phased out over 12 to 18 months. Stores would be required to sell reusable bags and offer shoppers bags made of paper or other biodegradable material.
Cardenas said he sees "no reason" to require retailers to charge shoppers for each disposable paper bag they use, as some other cities have done as part of plans to eliminate plastic bag use and give residents an incentive to bring reusable bags to the store. Stores could charge shoppers for paper bags if they want, though Cardenas noted that would put those stores at a competitive disadvantage.
Tanya Triche, a lawyer for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, told aldermen a ban "is tantamount to a tax on grocers" because paper bags cost about 10 cents each, compared with 3 cents per plastic bag. She said forcing grocers to provide paper bags could undermine Emanuel's efforts to bring grocery stores to underserved "food desert" neighborhoods, since the bags would add to their costs.
Emanuel spokesman Tom Alexander said in an email that "the mayor will work with members of City Council to reach a consensus on this issue."
Abby Goldberg, a 13-year-old Grayslake girl who mounted a petition drive last year that helped persuade Gov. Pat Quinn to veto legislation that would have prevented Illinois municipalities from banning plastic bags, testified that the environmental costs of allowing plastic bags outweigh short-term cost or inconvenience.
"You have the power to change our environment for the better," said Goldberg, who brought with her a model of a "bag monster" she said was made out of about of the 300 to 500 plastic bags a typical American uses each year.
And Stiv Wilson, spokesman for the 5 Gyres Institute that tracks plastic pollution in oceans and lakes, said his organization recorded the highest density of plastic byproducts in Lake Erie of any body of water it has tested around the world. "We expect that we will find similar results to Erie (in Lake Michigan)," Wilson said.
Aldermen proposed a plastic bag ban in 2008, but businesses complained and it was watered down to only require certain types of stores to set up bag recycling containers for people to return their disposable bags when they are done with them.