In the next 10 days or so, Evanston residents will have the opportunity to review their shopping and recycling habits and weigh in with their aldermen about an ordinance that would prohibit chain stores from dispensing disposable plastic shopping bags for their customers’ end-use.
There are a lot of merits to the ban: It tracks Chicago’s recently passed ordinance, so grocery shoppers will not flee to Chicago for a plastic-bag fix – although they may dash to Skokie or Wilmette for one. The Chicago ordinance also softens the blow for the chain stores, since complying with Evanston’s ordinance will be merely an extension of what they will already be doing.
There will also be environmental benefits both local and worldwide: Plastic bags litter our parks, our playgrounds, our streets and our lake. They cling to tree branches and clog sewer openings. In landfills they are among the most permanent denizens. Should the ban be approved, the presence of these disposable bags in those places will not be missed.
But those bags may be missed elsewhere, in their second-use capacities. They are used to line trash baskets and pick up animal waste. They make convenient totes for wet or sandy footwear and bathing suits and for flowers, bulbs and shrubs about to be transplanted. As packing materials, they are more economical than Styrofoam peanuts, and they are nearly always at hand.
This ordinance targets the low-hanging fruit, mostly chain stores that carry food and other staples. They will simply raise their prices to cover any added cost of complying with the ban, so of course it is a pass-through tax, principally on food. Thus it will affect everyone here similarly but not equally. Those with limited incomes are likely to feel the pinch more than others.
Critics of the ordinance are likely to note that most thin plastic bags are made from natural gas and its by-products, and many are manufactured in the United States, some even in Illinois.
By contrast, many re-usable bags are made from petroleum products and made in other countries. Paper bags, too, carry environmental costs – not in disposal but in creation and transportation.
So some bags create a problem in their creation; others, in their disposal.
We encourage residents to consider what messes we will carry into the future for our children and grandchildren to clean up – and what bags we will use to carry those messes.