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City council holds hearing on bag ban

  • A clerk bags groceries in plastic grocery bags on June 18, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. GETTY
A clerk bags groceries in plastic grocery bags on June 18, 2013 in Los Angeles,…
June 18, 2013|By Megan Crepeau, @crepeau | RedEye

An ordinance to ban plastic bags from Chicago retail stores got a City Council committee hearing Tuesday, more than a year and a half after it was initially proposed.

"This is a triple bottom-line issue," said Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), who wrote the legislation being considered by the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection. "It's about the environment, it's about the economy, it's about the people."

The amendment would prohibit retail stores larger than 5,000 square feet from providing customers with plastic bags (except small bags to carry produce or meat). It also would require stores to sell or give away reusable bags to customers. Shoppers still could bring their own bags of any kind into stores. 

Supporters of the ban, including dozens of schoolchildren with handmade signs, centered on the bags' environmental effect.

Plastic bags don't just become unsightly litter, according to Stiv Wilson, director of communications for the environmental group 5 Gyres. When they degrade, he said, the plastic particles get into lakes and rivers, affecting water quality.

"These small particles will stick around indefinitely," Wilson said. "[It] doesn't biodegrade and doesn't go away in a meaningful time frame."

Those opposed to a ban pointed out that plastic bags are a comparatively small part of the city's waste.

"Plastic bags make up about 2 percent of the city of Chicago's waste stream, according to the city's own numbers from 2009," said Tanya Triche, counsel for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. "That means that 98 percent of Chicago's waste is from items other than plastic bags."

Triche called the ban "in effect, a tax on retailers," saying that providing paper or biodegradable bags would cost merchants significantly more.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), the committee's chairman, did not call the ordinance to a vote, saying he would do so next month after hearing more from interested parties. 

Cardenas favors some kind of ban, and said the ordinance ideally would phase out plastic bags over the next 12 to 18 months.

Retailers, he said, should provide biodegradable or paper bags for free, and sell reusable bags.

"Have retailers provide the option," he said. "They can be leaders." 

Cities across the country have banned, charged for or taxed plastic retail bags, including Seattle, L.A., San Francisco, Washington and Baltimore. Chicago aldermen considered a plastic bag ban in 2008; it was downgraded to a compromise requiring stores to provide recycling bins for plastic bags.

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