Evanston passes plastic shopping bag ban

Bob Seidenberg
bseidenberg@pioneerlocal.com | @evanstonscribe
July 29 12:55 p.m.

Evanston aldermen crossed off one of the top items on local environmentalists’ lists Monday night, passing a ban on disposable plastic bags for chain and franchise stores.

Aldermen voted 5-4 to approve the ordinance, which sat on the shelf nearly three years until Chicago moved forward on a partial ban this spring.

Ald. Ann Rainey cited the importance of the Chicago ordinance as influencing her support.

“It doesn’t matter when one does it, but when everybody does it, it makes a difference,” she said. “We’re not taxing anybody. We’re not charging anybody. We’re just saying for the big guys, ‘you have to bring bags.’”

Ald. Coleen Burrus was a prime mover behind the ordinance, reacting to environmentalists’ concerns in her 9th Ward. She compared the adjustment to the change, which won’t go into effect until a year from now, to how people responded when cities like Evanston first passed bans on smoking in eating establishments, raising predictions that no one would come to Evanston restaurants and bars.

“Quite the contrary,” she said, people adjusted to the change. She predicted ordinances like Evanston’s would have a “mushroom effect” on the rest of the area. While it’s not going to fix the environmental problem of plastic bag waste, “we have to make a stand,” she said.

Other speakers and aldermen, though, maintained concern about the impact of the ordinance.

Ald. Don Wilson spoke of changing research, which has found that paper bags, while made from a potentially renewable resource, require more energy and water in their production and produce more waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Wilson said, in view of such findings, “we want to reduce bag usage, we want to make a positive impact on the environment, but the [ordinance] directs people to use paper bags, which will have a far greater negative impact. To me, it’s just a feel-good thing. We don’t like to see plastic bags blowing around and, because we don’t like to see it in our backyards, we’re willing to pass off to somebody else the environmental damage to somebody else’s backyard.”

Aldermen Judy Fiske, Peter Braithwaite and Delores Holmes all raised concerns about the effect of the ordinances on businesses. Braithwaite, whose ward includes Dempster Street and Dodge Avenue intersection where a grocery store chain recently announced interest, said he is concerned about the impact on such businesses.

While supportive of the city’s sustainability goals, “I also recognize the cost we’re passing on to residents. “I just think there needs to be a greater outreach to all the community to get their buy-in,” he said. The city plans an extensive community education program leading up to the ordinance taking effect Aug. 1 2015. A registration period would begin once the ordinance is adopted, said city Sustainability Programs Coordinator Catherine Hurley and Public Works Director Suzette Robinson.

Stores will be asked to report their compliance plan (type of bag) through an online form and through information posted on the city’s website. The city could assist with educational outreach and incentives for both consumer and stores.

Plastic bags have had a real effect on the local environment, Hurley and Robinson wrote in a detailed memo that examined the pros and cons of the issue. Made from non-renewable resources and not biodegradable, the bags “harm local environments and wildlife, clog storm drains, contaminate recycling processes and are a source of litter,” they said.

Litter from the bags impacts beaches and Lake Michigan with as many as 400 plastic bags being collected on one clean-up day, Hurley and Robinson reported. Plastic bags also are frequently recycled improperly in curbside recycling, they said, and clog regional recycling facilities, taking up both time and additional resources.

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