Emanuel's City Council floor leader expresses doubts about banning plastic bags
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter June 19, 2013 2:53PM
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader let the cat out of the plastic bag Wednesday: He has serious doubts about prohibiting Chicago retailers from putting their merchandise in plastic bags.
Just when a San-Francisco-style environmental plan to ban plastic bags appeared to be gaining steam in the City Council, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th) slowed it down by raising a red flag about the cost to grocers and consumers.
The Il. Retail Merchants Association has branded the renewed effort to ban plastic bags now clogging the waste stream as a “tax on retailers” that could stifle Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to fill Chicago’s food deserts with new grocery stores. That’s because paper bags cost three times as much as plastic bags.
On Wednesday, O’Connor raised those same concerns.
“There’s a fair amount of testimony that indicates that it will raise food prices in the area if people have to pay for that bag if the cost of the bag gets passed on,” O’Connor said.
“If you increase the cost of groceries for folks in the city for this purpose, that would be a difficult vote for some members of the City Council to take, given where we are with the economy and peoples’ paychecks at the present time.”
O’Connor said he’s not even sure banning plastic bags is the right way to go from an environmental standpoint. He cited testimony that switching to paper bags might “create more environmental damage” than plastic.
“People in the Council will want to have a more full understanding of what the merits of this are before they actually vote on it….It creates a fair amount of questions for me. I just don’t think it’s ready to be teed up yet,” he said.
Some retailers and environmentalists have suggested that the City Council impose a 10-cent tax on paper bags that would allow retailers to recoup the added cost. If consumers see they’re paying more for paper bags, they might be inclined to bring their own re-usable bags, they contend.
O’Connor is not so sure.
“I don’t know too many people [who] peruse their grocery bill that closely to determine that they paid ten cents for a bag,” he said.
“If they were told they were paying for it or if it was printed on the bag somewhere, they might know it better than looking at their grocery bill. I generally look and see what my shopper’s card has saved me as opposed to what I’ve spent.”
Earlier this week, the City Council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection took hours of testimony, but did not vote on the “ban the bag” ordinance introduced nineteen months ago by Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st).
But, it was clear that the ban had broad support even though Emanuel remains on the fence. That prompted Chairman George Cardenas (12th) to predict a vote at the next committee meeting on a slightly-tweaked ordinance that would phase in the ban over a 12-to-18 month period.
On Wednesday, O’Connor stressed that he doesn’t know where the mayor stands on the issue and won’t be able to clarify it until Emanuel returns next week from a trip to Israel to celebrate his daughter’s bat mitzvah.
A top mayoral aide, who asked to remain anonymous, said Emanuel’s decision to remain neutral does not mean the mayor opposes a Chicago ban on plastic bags.
“No position. Waiting for City Council to work through their concerns with each other,” the mayoral aide wrote this week in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“They have a disagreement and we have a ton on our plate. If there’s concensus and it moves, we would be happy to support” the ban.
Five years ago, Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) proposed a ban on non-compostible plastic bags to curb the flood of bags stuck in trees and fences, jamming landfills and waterways and blamed for the annual death of a million birds and 100,000 marine animals.
But, Burke backed off after retailers joined forces with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley against the ban.
Retailers helped draft the recycling compromise and went along with it, even after expressing strong reservations about the cost. At the time, plastic bags cost two cents apiece, compared to six cents for paper and as much as 14 cents for compostible plastic bags.