Chicago moves to ban plastic shopping bags—if Rahm's willing | Bleader

Chicago moves to ban plastic shopping bags—if Rahm's willing



Welcome to the beach--and enjoy the plastic bags floating in the breeze. On the upside, they could be banned in Chicago soon.
  • Mick Dumke
  • Welcome to the beach—and enjoy the plastic bags floating in the breeze. On the upside, they could be banned in Chicago soon.
Chicago would become the largest U.S. city to ban plastic shopping bags from supermarkets if a group of aldermen get their way.

But that's the catch, because aldermen don't get their way in Chicago unless the mayor lets them. And it's not clear if Mayor Rahm Emanuel will allow the bag ban to come up for a vote when a City Council committee considers it next Tuesday.

The chief sponsor of the proposal, First Ward alderman Proco "Joe" Moreno, says the measure has wide support and should easily pass the health and environment committee. "I have not spoken to one alderman on the committee who's said no."

Emanuel's position is less clear. Press aides won't say whether he backs the ban, which is strongly opposed by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association and other business groups friendly with the mayor.

"My understanding is that there's support from the administration," says Alderman George Cardenas, a mayoral loyalist who chairs the health and environment committee. "By no means, though, is this an effort to shove something down the retailers' throats."

When aldermen talk about compromising or slowing a proposal down, that usually means it's toast. This is a body that approves complicated budgets and privatization deals in weeks, if not days, when the mayor demands it.

But if the new proposal does proceed, Chicago would join a growing list of left-leaning areas that are forcing shoppers to switch to reusable bags. Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles County, and the state of Hawaii have passed their own plastic bag bans, while the city of LA, Dallas, and New York have mulled the possibility.

Attempts to prohibit plastic bags in Chicago have been sacked before.

A group of aldermen and environmentalists first proposed a ban six years ago, after noting that plastic bags are a costly, annoying, and visible sign of our waste-producing lifestyle—skittering down the street in the breeze, getting snagged in trees, and clogging sewer drains. Worse, plastic eventually breaks down into tiny pieces and toxic chemicals, and patches of plastic pollution have formed in the Pacific Ocean and Great Lakes.

Still, science isn't always as persuasive as mayors are. Though Richard M. Daley had cultivated a reputation as an environmental leader, he joined the Illinois Retail Merchants Association in arguing that a bag ban would raise business expenses and kill jobs.

Aldermen buckled. "I know there are many who would like to see the outright ban of these bags, but I don't think we're ready at this point," concluded Ed Burke, the same alderman who had proposed an outright ban a few months earlier. Instead, Burke and his colleagues passed a "compromise" law that required large retailers to set up plastic bag recycling programs.

It didn't end the problem. A 2009 city study found that only 2 to 3 percent of all plastic bags were actually recycled. And between 2010 and 2012, the total weight of plastic bags that were recycled fell by more than a quarter.

Retailers say that's because more people are switching to reusable bags. "We believe in choices and we believe our customers like to have choices," says Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. "We think the program is working."

Moreno doesn't. "It's a joke," he says.

Since joining the council in 2010, Moreno has backed just about everything advocated by Daley and now Emanuel, though he also speaks out for liberal causes popular among his Wicker Park constituents.

Moreno and his staff have worked for more than two years to build support for a stronger plastic bag ordinance. The proposal they came up with would ban disposable plastic bags at all stores larger than 5,000 square feet while requiring them to provide or sell reusable alternatives.

Seventeen other aldermen have asked to sign on as cosponsors, Moreno says. "It's an environmental issue and a taxpayer issue. It's good for the city."

But IRMA has let aldermen know that the proposal would be burdensome on retailers at a time they're working to expand into food deserts. Some aldermen get the impression that they have to choose between banning plastic bags or bringing decent grocery stores to low-income neighborhoods.

"Some of my colleagues have come to me and said, 'Let's just take it slowly,'" Moreno says.

He remains optimistic, especially since mayoral aides have offered no objections. "They're just standing to the side."

Rahm Emanuel isn't often described as someone who stands to the side. The mayor seized control of the City Council soon after taking office, when he and his staff decided which aldermen would lead which committees, and then began telling them what legislation they should pass.

Proposals the mayor doesn't like at all—to create an independent budget office, or to provide more oversight of privatization deals—have been buried in the council's rules committee.

Emanuel's aides wouldn't tell me what the mayor thinks of the bag idea. But spokeswoman Tarrah Cooper suggested in an e-mail that there was little reason to get worked up about next week's committee hearing: "They aren't voting on anything."

Cardenas, the committee chairman, is a cosponsor of the bag ordinance, but he wouldn't promise to hold a vote on it. "There will be efforts to make sure we do it right, to get the facts, get the data."

Moreno says he fully expects the bag ban to advance. "If we're really going to say we're committed to the environment, let's put some substance behind it."