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Activists, merchants differ on Evanston plan to tax or ban shopping bags

A plastic lies street South Blvd. Tuesday May 24 2011 Evanston. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

A plastic lies on the street at South Blvd. Tuesday, May 24, 2011, in Evanston. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Almost everyone seemed to agree that reducing disposable bag use is an environmental imperative, or at least a laudable idea.

But residents and business leaders expressed different views Tuesday night on whether the Evanston should ban or tax disposable shopping bags.

The city is considering banning both paper and plastic shopping bags — or imposing a tax on them — and some merchants worried that consumers would bypass Evanston if shopping became too inconvenient or they resented paying the tax.

But some activists believed consumers would appreciate Evanston’s stand and register support it with their dollars.

“For every person who has said they are against it, there is someone else who has said they would shop in Evanston to support it,” said Catherine Hurley, sustainable programs manager for the city.

The city is gathering input from citizens and businesses before presenting a plan to the City Council June 13. In late April, a council committee reviewing a proposed tax on one-use bags shifted gears and discussed banning the bags altogether.

Some speakers felt it would be a mistake for Evanston alone to ban or tax the bags, saying a enlisting neighboring towns to join the effort would level the playing field for businesses throughout the area.

“This is really a statewide issue,” said Tanya Triche, senior counsel for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

She pointed to a bill in the Illinois General Assembly that would require manufacturers to develop a plan for recycling carryout bags and product wrap. The bill also would require bags to contain a certain percentage of post-consumer recycled content.

Only 1.5 percent of plastic store bags are recovered through recycling programs in Illinois, a dismally low figure compared to the recovery rates for aluminum cans, plastic bottles, glass jars and most other recyclables, according to a 2009 study contracted by the Illinois Recycling Association.

Citizens’ Greener Evanston, which boasts 1,400 members, has not taken a firm stand in favor of a bag tax or ban.

“We support 100 percent the idea of reducing disposable bags, plastic or paper,” said Ron Fleckman, president of the organization. “We are also a pro-business group. We are very willing to be an active participant in the education piece.”

Dan Mennemeyer, president of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, said the group had only begun to survey its members, and early results are mixed. Speaking personally, Mennemeyer said he had switched to reusable bags three or four years ago.

“It is now second nature,” he said.

Local business owner Todd Ruppenthal said the consensus among people at his table was that “the best ordinance would be no ordinance at all.”

Speaking later as president of the Central Street Merchants Association, Ruppenthal said, “We are not against a greener Evanston. What we are against is something we believe is very small-sighted. This is the head of the pin of what could possibly be done.”

Some pointed to the aesthetic upside of eliminating plastic bags that litter streets and alleys and get caught on tree branches. On the other hand, resident Rebecca Weber said she didn’t see as much bag litter as empty beer bottles, pop cans, diapers and old shoes.

“What are you going to ban next? Fast-food takeout?” she said. “Where does it stop?”

Weber said she views the proposal as city interference in choices she should have as a consumer.

Citizens’ Greener Evanston is hosting a presentation of the documentary “Bag It!” by filmmaker Susan Beraza that members say makes a compelling case for action. The presentation is scheduled for 7 p.m. June 3 at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, 1330 Ridge Ave.



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