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The Plastic Plague

Even China has found ways to deal with the glut of plastic shopping bags. When will Chicago get it together?Soul food listings



The 6200 block of North Kenmore looks like any number of "nice" blocks around the city. It's a pretty, tree-lined street, with a mix of old and new houses, apartments, and condo conversions. Parking is hard to come by. And there are plastic bags absolutely everywhere.

In fact almost every other tree has one flapping in its upper branches—there's a bright white one, filled like a wind sock, clearly displaying the red Walgreens logo. Nearby a plain black bag blows slowly down the sidewalk. The shredded remains of a grubby old tan one hang from a shrub in front of an apartment building; a muddy, matted one lies in the gutter next to crushed plastic water bottles. A white one with a big yellow smiley face on it is wadded up against the bottom of a fence.

Plenty of people all over the city are frustrated by this sort of sight. "I actually had complaints here within my ward from people saying, 'There's plastic bags stuck in my tree—can you get them out?'" says Margaret Laurino, alderman of the northwest-side 39th Ward.

Laurino wishes she and her staff didn't have to explain repeatedly that the city can't send forestry crews around to free bags from trees. And she says she's even more concerned about the environmental consequences we can't see.

Plastic shopping bags have become one of the most visible environmental scourges of city life. According to some estimates, Americans use 100 billion of them a year, and consumers worldwide run through more than a million every minute. Not only do they often turn into unsightly litter, they also end up consuming landfill space, clogging sewers, choking hundreds of thousands of sea creatures, and very, very slowly—over hundreds of years by most estimates—breaking down into toxic chemicals. And of course they're made from petroleum, so they exacerbate the many environmental and political problems related to oil production and consumption.

It's hardly controversial to say something needs to be done. Like bottled water and SUVs, plastic bags have become a target of green-minded communities around the world. Ireland has taxed plastic shopping bags so heavily that their use there is down 94 percent. China, Bangladesh, and other governments have banned them altogether. Cities in the UK, Canada, and the United States have held "bag-free" days or introduced more permanent restrictions. And environmental groups—including some devoted exclusively to reducing the use of plastic bags, like the Chicago-based—encourage shoppers to bring their own reusable bags when they shop.

In Chicago, though, the issue is entangled in city politics. Mayor Daley repeatedly says he wants to make the city the greenest in the country, but in truth he and the rest of the city's administration often follow the lead of others with far more innovative and aggressive plans. In 2005, for instance, the city of San Francisco discussed imposing a 17-cent tax on plastic shopping bags before getting retailers to agree instead to a major reduction in their use. By 2007 officials decided the retailers hadn't done enough, and last March the city's board of supervisors passed a ban on nonbiodegradable shopping bags for supermarkets and drug-store chains. "Hopefully, other cities and other states will follow suit," the sponsor told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ed Burke, alderman of Chicago's 14th Ward, avidly follows—and frequently borrows ideas from—legislative bodies in other cities. A few weeks after San Francisco enacted its ban he introduced a similar ordinance in the Chicago City Council that would have required the same types of stores to switch to reusable bags or disposable ones made from recycled paper, corn starch, or other compostable materials.

Burke is the longest-serving member of the council and chairman of its largest and most important committee, finance. Even among other aldermen he's thought to have clout and influence to rival the mayor's. But he's more of a pragmatist than an arm-twister. At any City Council meeting he's likely to float at least a couple resolutions and ordinances; since the beginning of this year he's proposed a crackdown on irresponsible mortgage lenders, a public hearing on the police department's animal crimes unit, and a permitting process for people or businesses to acquire bioterror detectors. But many of his ideas—like past proposals to ban certain chemicals used in dry cleaning, toughen pollution regulations for power plants, or restrict the use of trans fats in restaurant cooking—never get anywhere, and if they don't pick up instant support he doesn't often throw his weight around trying to advance them.

That's what happened with his plastic bag ban, which wasn't well received by the retail industry and didn't gain traction with other aldermen. "If you don't have 26 votes in the City Council, you can't pass it," says Burke spokesman Donal Quinlan. Burke's ban was referred to the council's committee on energy and environment, where it sat for about eight months.

In the fall the mayor introduced a 2008 budget that proposed expanding several of the city's environmental programs, including the new blue-bin recycling service, which would've been extended to up to 30 percent of homes with city garbage pickup. But the budget also called for hundreds of millions of dollars in tax hikes, and during the negotiation process blue-bin expansion to all but a few thousand households was delayed to save money. In the meantime, the city continues to encourage the rest of us to either blue bag recyclables or take them to one of the 15 drop-off centers it's set up around the city.

But the drop-off centers don't accept plastic shopping bags. All of the bags thrown into city recycling bins get landfilled. And many of the stores that use plastic bags don't recycle them—including Target, Walgreens, and most smaller stores. (Among those that do recycle are Jewel and Dominick's; Whole Foods has vowed to stop using plastic bags altogether by Earth Day.)

The reason is simple: recycling them is difficult and expensive. For starters, plastic bags aren't all made out of the same kind of plastic, and short of doing it by hand, most recyclers haven't found a thoroughly effective way to sort them. It takes a large volume to be able to process them into reusable form, and this gets costly in a hurry because the bags are easily contaminated—even a paper receipt left in one could cause problems.

"I've tried several times to recover these things and market them, even recently, and we just can't find dependable markets for them," said Calvin Tigchelaar, president of Chicago Ridge-based Resource Management, which processes most of the recyclables collected in Chicago's blue-bin program. "I've been other places and seen warehouses full of bales of them because they can't be sold. The last thing I want to do is have material coming in here that people think is recyclable and we're having to throw it out."

After New York City passed a law in January that forces large retailers to set up plastic bag recycling programs, Alderman Laurino drafted a nearly identical ordinance for Chicago. Rather than ban nonbiodegradeable bags, like San Francisco's law, it would require that stores with at least 5,000 square feet of retail space place recycling collection bins near their entrances, print a message on each bag asking the consumer to recycle it, report recycling data to the city's Department of Environment, and offer consumers the option of buying reusable bags.

When Laurino's proposal went to the council's environment committee, Burke moved quickly to support it instead of his original, tougher measure—though the two aldermen did beef up the new ordinance with a provision that stores without bag recycling could be fined $300 a day.

"In the context of New York scoring what has been a major victory, Chicago wants to take the initiative to follow suit," says Quinlan. Burke, he adds, knew that "his previous measure had lingered in committee, and he saw a chance to win passage of not a ban but a recycling measure which would make a huge difference for the environment. Sometimes you have to amend your proposals to get something that has a chance to pass the City Council."

That didn't stop Daley from railing against a plastic bag ban that was no longer on the table. "You can't outlaw plastic bags overnight," he told reporters earlier this month. Without getting into the details of the Laurino-Burke plan—or giving the impression that he was even familiar with them—the mayor went on to attack the City Council itself for not supporting the tax hikes that could have supported more blue-bin recycling. He added that he favors "a voluntary approach" by retailers.

Of course that's exactly what currently exists, and it hasn't been effective. But it's what the retailers want to hear. "Recycling isn't necessarily going to happen overnight," says Dave Vite, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, echoing the mayor's statement. He points out that businesses, recyclers, and even some environmentalists agree that forcing retailers to recycle isn't the most productive approach to the problem, given the well-known obstacles.

It's currently almost impossible for individual stores to make bag recycling cost-effective, Vite says. Large chains, though, can do it: Jewel-Osco, with 184 stores, provides such a voluminous and steady stream of plastic, cardboard, and other materials, says spokeswoman Juanita Kocanda, that it's been able to get a good deal from its recycler.

But Laurino believes it'll get easier. "Maybe there's not a market currently, but I say a year from today there will be," she says. "I think the environmental groups would like the ordinance to be stronger, but my response is that it's a start."

She says she and Burke are talking with retailers about how to identify markets and make bag recycling viable. Vite thinks they'll work something out in the next few weeks, though he says retailers really aren't the people who need to decide what to do about plastic bags.

"I think the retail community has the responsibility for a lot of things," he says, "but it's the customer who really decides where to shop, what kind of products they're going to use, and what they're willing to buy."v

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