Shopping bags in other countries have become innovative and clever, such as this one, sent to the RoundTable and marked as created by Bored Panda.

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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), 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 or garbage 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.

Background

The Evanston Climate Action Plan (ECAP), approved by City Council on Nov. 10, 2008, suggests several strategies for the community to reduce its carbon footprint. 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 as 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 plastic 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 an amendment to ban rather than tax them. Thus eliminating single-use bags by taxing them out of existence or banning them outright has become one of Evanston’s “it questions.”

The consensus from small-group discussions at the May 24 meeting was a concern for both the environment and businesses in Evanston. Implementing a tax on single-use bags – with the hope of citizens’ voluntarily reducing their use – or banning them outright could be either a step toward sustainability or a stumbling block to economic prosperity.

Ban, Tax or Let It Be?

Those who favored banning bags gave several reasons: aesthetics, sustainability and easing the drain on such City services as recycling and refuse collection and street-sweeping. Some speakers also said they thought people would come to Evanston to shop because a ban on single-use bags would enhance its reputation for sustainability.

For the most part, those who supported a tax on the bags cited several reasons but said they preferred a tax to a ban. A tax, they said, would be essentially voluntary, as persons who used reusable bags could avoid it. A ban, they felt would be more intrusive.

Paul Giddings, co-owner of Folkworks Gallery, 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 understands the reason for the effort.”

Todd Ruppenthal, president of the Central Street Business Association (CSBA) 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 either a ban or a tax on single-use bags.

The letter also said, “We feel the City proposing any sort of negative-based way of addressing this issue with a fee or ban is heavy-handed and absolutely unacceptable to the small businesses of Evanston. … Anything, such as an extra fee that will make the playing field less than level for Evanston Businesses in comparison to the adjoining areas, works to send Evanston business customers to these adjoining cities. … We recommend that the City put its effort and resources behind a more positive way to address this issue.”

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.”

Ron Fleckman, president of CGE, said, “The CGE board supports 100 percent the idea of reducing plastic bags and paper bags in the City of Evanston. This is very pro-business.”

Northwestern University student Alex Allen spoke about her group, “Bagless NU.” She said they are striving to confine their purchases and lifestyles to a “no-impact” year.

Mike Sullivan of Hilex Poly, a manufacturer of plastic bags, said, “Eighty-five percent of plastic bags in North America come from natural gas – which is abundant here. … We believe the solution is comprehensive recycling.”

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 matter. “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.