Published On: Tue, Feb 2nd, 2016

Six months in, Chicago’s plastic bag ban a mixed bag

In the six months since Chicago’s plastic bag ban went into effect, Jordan Parker, an environmentalist and critic of the city’s bag ordinance, has lobbied aldermen to give it more teeth.

CHICAGO: In the six months since Chicago’s plastic bag ban went into effect, Jordan Parker, an environmentalist and critic of the city’s bag ordinance, has lobbied aldermen to give it more teeth.

Plastic Recycling

Six months in, Chicago’s plastic bag ban a mixed bag

But she has also felt encouraged by what appears to be growing awareness among some shoppers to cut down on plastic bags.

At her neighborhood Jewel in Uptown, Parker has noticed 1 in 3 customers carrying reusable bags as they shop, which she credits to prominent signage on store windows advocating BYOB — bring your own bag — and to cashiers asking shoppers at check out if they’ve brought their bag or wish to buy one.

The grocery chain’s educational campaign seems to be spurring a cultural shift as shoppers start to observe and emulate good bag habits, said Parker, founder and director of the grass-roots advocacy group Bring Your Own Bag Chicago.

“I actually cheer for people at Jewel,” she said, when she sees they have brought reusable bags. “I’m that weird, eccentric bag lady.”

When the city’s ban on the once-ubiquitous thin plastic bags went into effect Aug. 1, people questioned what environmental good it would do given that most retailers planned to just offer customers free thicker plastic bags that complied with the ordinance. The lead sponsor of the law, one of more than 200 in the country aimed at curbing plastic bag litter, swiftly pushed to make it stricter.

While there are no statistics to show a change in behavior six months in; anecdotally, some retailers and customers report improvements.

“By educating our customers and training cashiers and service clerks, Jewel-Osco has significantly reduced the number of plastic bags used since the Chicago plastic bag ban went into effect,” Jewel spokeswoman Mary Frances Trucco said in an email. She declined to provide any more details. Before the ban, a typical Jewel went through 6,000 plastic bags daily.

But Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel at the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said that — while some shoppers and retailers have embraced the cause — overall, the ordinance has done little but increase retailers’ costs as they replaced thin plastic bags with pricier, thicker ones that customers are just as happy to take.

“People have to be incentivized to bring their own bag; otherwise, it’s just too easy for them to take the bag that’s offered to them,” Triche said.

Jewel’s policy is to offer paper bags or ordinance-compliant reusable plastic bags at no cost, and customers also can buy reusable bags starting at 10 cents, Trucco said. But Parker said that at her Jewel, customers have to pay 10 cents for a bag if they have fewer than eight items, which she applauds because it encourages people to think twice.

As Cynthia Howe left Jewel downtown holding two of the store’s plastic bags in her hands, she said she tries to bring her own bags but sometimes forgets, and she doubts the fee discourages people from buying them.

“I don’t think having to pay 10 cents is that much of a bother for people to bring their own reusable bags,” Howe, 30, said.

Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno, 1st, one of the lead sponsors of the law, said the cleanup crews in his ward have told him they “absolutely see a reduction in plastic bags floating in our parks and streets.”

But he denounced the “bigger players” who are giving away the thicker plastic bags allowed under the ordinance, which take five times more energy to produce. He has introduced three amendments since July that are awaiting hearings in the committee on health and environmental protection.

As currently written, the city’s law prohibits chains with stores over 10,000 square feet from distributing the flimsy “T-shirt” carryout bags, and smaller chain stores, such as 7-Elevens, must comply by Aug. 1. (Restaurants are exempt.) It permits stores to offer recyclable paper bags, bags that can biodegrade in a commercial composting facility, and “reusable plastic bags” that are at least 2.25 mils thick, have handles and can carry at least 22 pounds for at least 125 uses. There is no mandatory fee, but retailers can impose one if they wish.

Moreno’s amendments include more than tripling the minimum thickness of a reusable plastic bag to 10 mils, making it so cost-prohibitive that retailers couldn’t offer them for free. He also wants to require every retailer affected by the ordinance to provide weekly data identifying what type of bags are used in each point-of-sale transaction, with a hefty $1,000 to $3,000 penalty for each week they fail to do so.

His proposed amendments also alter the policy around compostable bags to allow them only when residents have access to curbside compost collection, and to add an option for “oxo-biodegradable” plastic bags that fully degrade in an open environment.

Parker is critical of Moreno’s proposals, saying the proposed thickness of plastic bags “is a little bit nuts” and far exceeds the 4 mils seen in the strictest ordinances elsewhere in the country.

She is lobbying aldermen to introduce an amendment to impose a “token fee” of 10 cents for each bag provided at the register, to trigger awareness that nudges people away from a disposable economy.

Triche, of the retail merchants association, also advocates imposing a mandatory bag fee on customers to level the playing field and to help retailers recoup the added cost of supplying more expensive bags. One of the group’s smaller members, with three stores in Chicago, spent $40,000 buying new bags, while a larger chain spent more than $3 million, she said. The thicker plastic bags cost 7 to 12 cents, compared with 1 to 2 cents for the old thin bags. Paper bags cost about 10 cents.

Pete’s Fresh Market, which has 12 stores in the Chicago area, charges shoppers 10 cents per plastic or paper bag, one of the few retailers to impose a bag fee as a result of the ordinance. It also gives shoppers 5 cents off their purchase for bringing reusable bags.

Jarvis Pledger, 24, a regular Pete’s shopper, said the fee prompted him to start bringing reusable bags. But he disapproves of the policy because many of his fellow shoppers use food stamps that now must go toward bags as well as groceries.

At Binny’s, which started offering free compostable bags to comply with the new law, “we’re still in the process of training our customers,” communications director Greg Versch said. Customers are encouraged to return the bags to Binny’s to be sent to a commercial composting site for proper disposal. Asked if customers have been doing so, Versch said: “A little.”

But the company has had a 10 percent rise in sales of its 99-cent reusable bags over the past six months over the same period the prior year, Versch said.

Remembering to bring those reusable bags shopping is one of the most difficult behavioral changes.

As she steered her shopping cart through Pete’s, Maria Bruno said she always forgets to bring the bags in with her, and paying the 10 cents is “no biggie” compared with the hassle of returning to the car.

But now there’s an app for that.

Get Your Bags, 99 cents at the iTunes app store, uses GPS to detect when users are approaching pre-selected grocery stores and sends a notification to their mobile phone: “Get your grocery bags!”

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