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Restaurants and small independents exempt from plastic bag ban

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) | Sun-Times files

Ald. George Cardenas (12th) | Sun-Times files

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Updated: May 25, 2014 3:33PM

Chicago retailers would be prohibited from putting their merchandise in plastic bags, but restaurants and small independents would be exempt, under a groundbreaking compromise hammered out by the City Council.

Last week, Ald. George Cardenas (12th), chairman of the Committee on Health and Environmental Protection, put off a showdown vote on the San Francisco-style environmental crackdown to give aldermen more time to find middle ground.

The compromise they crafted includes more exceptions than originally planned.

Instead of simply excusing small mom-and-pop retailers, the final language exempts all Chicago restaurants as well as “non-franchise” independent stores with a square footage under 10,000 feet.

Stores with less than 10,000 square feet would be included if they’re part of a chain that includes three or more stores.

Compliance deadlines would depend on the size of the store. If they’re bigger than 10,000 square feet, the deadline would be Aug. 1, 2015. If they’re 10,000 square feet or less, they would have until Aug. 1, 2016, to get in line.

Fines would range from $300 to $500 for each offense. All retailers covered “shall provide reusable bags, recyclable paper bags or any combination thereof” to customers” to be used to “carry away goods from the point of sale,” the ordinance states.

Cardenas has said all along that his goal was to craft a compromise that virtually all of his colleagues could support. By including so many exemptions, he’s apparently managed to find that middle ground.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has signed on to the compromise. In fact, top mayoral aide Farzin Parang played a key role in negotiating the deal behind-the-scenes.

In a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times, Cardenas argued that “everyone is on board” and that Aldermen Carrie Austin (34th) and Matt O’Shea (19th) had agreed to co-sponsor the substitute ordinance, along with Ald. “Proco” Joe Moreno (1st), who has led a nearly three-year crusade against plastic bags.

Pressed on why Chicago’s roughly 40,000 restaurants would be excused, Cardenas wrote, “The number is small, volume-wise. ... Their business is inside serving. The data we looked at was minimal impact.”

Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, agreed that restaurants should be exempt because they “have a set of issues very different from other stores regarding food safety.”

She noted that plastic bags “help if things spill” and assist in averting food contamination.

But if the intent of the ordinance is to reduce litter and keep plastic bags from “blowing around the city and piling up in landfills,” the more exemptions you have, the more “diluted” the outcome, she said.

“Our industry is being mandated to pay for getting rid of plastic bags. You’re asking us and our customers to pay to accomplish an environmental goal that you will not achieve because you’re exempting large categories of retailers,” Triche said.

She added, “Whether they’re independents or part of national chains, these are people who have invested greatly in neighborhoods. To push through something we know will raise costs to retailer puts lots of things in jeopardy. Hours worked, jobs, locations. You make retailers re-think whether this is where they want to do business. That’s not the position you want to put the city in.”

Austin said Wednesday that her decision to co-sponsor the ordinance was contingent on the exemption for restaurants and small independents and on the extended timetable to come into compliance.

“If you’re in a restaurant, what are you gonna do, go out of the restaurant with the container in your hand” instead of in a plastic bag]? That’s awful,” she said.

“There are some stores that offer paper and/or plastic. And that’s their decision. We don’t need to put an additional burden on them at this time. What can they afford now? It’s already detrimental to ‘em. Now, you’re gonna add another layer? Even though we spank ‘em on the hand, we’ve still got to be a little bit more business-conscious so we don’t run our people away.”

Moreno said he agreed to the exemptions “very close to my original ordinance” to finally get an ordinance passed by the City Council.

“After the ordinance is enacted, I’m very confident we’ll come back at some point and have everybody included,” he said.

Moreno said restaurants were excused because of a “legal argument” he considers a “poor one” that triggered a lawsuit in Seattle.

“They make this argument that reusable bags contain bacteria that could get inside the food consumed. I think it’s very weak but, by doing this, it takes one of their large arguments away,” he said.

Moreno categorically denied that the final version had been softened so much as to diminish the environmental impact.

“We have 3 billion bags used in Chicago [every year]. If we’re taking 90 percent of those away, that’s a huge step in the right direction,” he said.

Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, said he was “thrilled” that restaurants were excused from the plastic bag ban.

“I’m not a proponent of the plastic bag ban, so the more liberal it is the better. We need to be helping restaurants,” Tunney said.

“It’s one thing after the next,” he said. “I’m here to protect small business. I’m here about the jobs, the economic development and the small businesses. Anything we can do to protect them—that’s why I’m here.”

At a City Council hearing last month, O’Shea was the only alderman dead-set against banning plastic bags. He argued that his far Southwest Side ward was “already hemorrhaging business” to the suburbs of Evergreen Park, Oak Lawn and Blue Island.

“We must consider the whole picture and recognize that lofty ideas and good intentions that we have in this building do have a tangible impact on those who chose to operate a business in Chicago,” O’Shea said then.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook the past three days from small business owners begging me to stand up for them. They have a real fear about this. This is gonna be just another nail in their coffin…This is just one more reason for businesses to close their doors and move to where there’s less-restrictive government.”

Last month, Emanuel said he was prepared to ban plastic bags, but had not yet decided whether or when to include smaller retailers.

“It’s how to balance what happens between a big retailer vs. a neighborhood store, which is what I told you in the beginning was where I thought you needed to be sensitive [because] the details matter here,” the mayor said then.

“This touches a lot of people [and] how they live their lives and you’re not gonna just do it overnight….We will get where we need to be on the plastic bags because it’s in the interest of the city as it relates to our environmental policy and we’ll work through those issues.”

Last year, Emanuel’s opposition derailed a weaker ban-the-bag ordinance that would have prohibited Chicago retailers with more than 5,000 square feet of floor space from putting their merchandise in plastic bags.

Moreno then came back with a new version that includes retailers large and small at the behest of aldermen whose wards are dominated by small stores and didn’t want their wards littered with plastic bags.

That only made the Illinois Retail Merchants Association’s push harder for a 10-cent tax on paper bags that cost three times as much as plastic to allow retailers to recoup their costs and give consumers an incentive to bring reusable bags on shopping trips.

Emanuel, Cardenas and Moreno have all rejected the tax idea. They have argued that there’s nothing stopping retailers from imposing the tax, but they’re not about to do it for them.

“A fee is not on the table. There’s not enough support for a fee. It’s either ban it or don’t,” Cardenas has said.

No matter how watered-down the language, City Council approval of any ban on plastic bags would mark a dramatic turnaround for Chicago.

Nearly seven years ago, Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke (14th) proposed a ban on non-compostable 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 a recycling compromise and went along with it, even after expressing strong reservations about the cost.

In a recent interview, Burke essentially said, “I told you so.”

“Clearly, it’s a matter that’s time has come. I introduced this years ago. It didn’t go anywhere. And it’s still a blight on the urban landscape,” Burke said then.

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