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Yesterday 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas pitched the idea of taxing sales of bottled water. Not surprisingly, Mayor Daley spoke up for the idea at a press conference today--Cardenas rarely moves in public without checking with the mayor. And there's a clear advantage for Daley to having one of his surrogates float the proposal: this way, if the idea sinks--as it almost certainly will--he doesn't have to look bad. Cardenas, best known as a filp-flopper on the big-box minimum-wage ordinance and as an apologist for the HDO, doesn't have to worry about such things.
Bottled water is a convenient target, since, as city officials point out, it's not necessary unless you're nowhere near a faucet. Studies have found that Chicago's water is actually tastier and purer than many bottled brands. And the bottled water industry has rightly come under fire for all the petroleum it needs to make the plastic bottles and all the landfill space those bottles take up. Plus, there's another side of this: every drop of spring water put into a bottle (not that every brand is actually from a real spring) is diverted from a natural watershed, and rising demand has already put a tremendous strain on some of them. Some groups--radicals like the West Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church have even launched boycotts of bottled water companies. I predict we'll start seeing a whole lot more of this.
Of course, that's not really what the bottled water tax is about. It's about money. If the city could figure out a way to raise cash from towing more cars--or, for that matter, towing trucks delivering bottled water--it would. Short of that, I'm guessing Daley people are about to propose all kinds of new revenue-generating ideas. A tax on shoe shines, perhaps?
Frankly, though, if city officials were serious about confronting these environmental problems, they'd impose a deposit on bottled water and other beverage containers and lobby the legislature to take it statewide. That way they could actually discourage use while encouraging recycling for those who buy the bottles anyway.
Of course, a deposit wouldn't raise hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. So how about a tax on other kinds of packaging that aren't biodegradable and can't be recycled?
These aren't new ideas--I'm basically stealing them from the City Council and Daley administration of old. In 1990 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke introduced an ordinance that would put a ten-cent deposit on beverage bottles while also requiring all other packaging materials to be recyclable or biodegradable. Daley endorsed the measure, and he and Burke created a task force to study the idea. It was soon buried under the administration's Blue Bag program and never heard from again.