Reusable bags, such as this one, are preferable to either paper or plastic.

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They came prepared – about 75 Evanston residents and a few visitors, armed with information and differing opinions about whether the City should impose a tax on certain single-use bags (paper and plastic) or ban them or keep the status quo. 

 The City defines “single-use bags” as those given to a patron at the point of payment – a cashier or checkout line – to carry out merchandise. It does not include smaller produce or bakery bags found at grocery stores, garbage bags or newspaper bags. Nor does the definition consider whether residents reuse these bags. 

At the end of a May 24 meeting  to elicit community input on the matter there was consensus on only one issue: Education on the topic is essential, no matter which direction the City Council takes.

 Contrary to what many seem to think, paper bags are more environmentally costly than are plastic bags, if one takes in the cycle of creation and disposal. It takes about three times as much energy to produce a paper bag than a plastic bag, said Catherine Hurley, the City’s sustainability coordinator. Recycling sees a similar differential:  Seventeen BTUs are needed to recycle one plastic bag and 1,400 to recycle one paper bag, said Ms. Hurley. Paper bags, though generally have more recycled content and are for the most part biodegradable, unlike paper bags. Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said at the City meeting at which she proposed the five-cent-per-bag tax, that one problem with the recycling of plastic bags is that many of them are shipped to China, where they are burned for fuel, releasing toxic gases into the atmosphere.

 At that same meeting, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, proposed amending the ordinance to banning them. Eliminating single-use bags by taxing them out of existence or banning them outright has become one of Evanston’s “it questions.”

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Paul Giddings, co-owner of Folkworks, said if the City acted alone in banning bags, that measure – coupled with the parking charges – could pose additional problems for businesses.  “We have to roll it out in a smart way, to make sure everyone understand the reason for the effort.”

Todd Ruppenthal, president of the Central Street Business Association, said his organization supports businesses and sustainability. A letter to the City Council posted on the CSBA website questioned, among other things, the logistics and benefits of enforcing such an ordinance.

Christopher Hart of Citizens Greener Evanston (CGE) said, “Education is meant to speak to those who oppose the ban as well as those who support it. This is seen as an effort toward changing behavior.”

A spokesperson for the Illinois Retail Association said, “The issue of plastic bags is a statewide issue. We should have a law that retailers all over the state can use. … We feel that voluntary recycling programs do work. We do not need [a law] to change our behavior. That will happen over the course of time.”

Dan Mennemeyer, president of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, said they had conducted a two-day online survey of their members and planned to poll them in more detail before presenting a position on the mater. “Let’s face the fact that a [proposed] ordinance has created this conversation. Those who have bags may be opposed to a potential [5₵ per bag] tax. … We’re going green – like it or not – we’re going to get there. The question for the Chamber is how we get there.”

A proposed ordinance on single-use bags – either to ban or to tax them – is likely to be presented at the June 13 City Council meeting.