City Council has approved a ban on distributing plastic bags used to carry groceries, books and other goods sold by stores “with a floor area whose square footage exceeds 10,000 square feet.” The narrow 5-4 vote came on the night of July 28, but the ban will not go into effect until Aug. 1, 2015.

Under the original proposed ordinance, smaller stores would have been subject to the ban in August 2016, but a late amendment removed all references to stores with floor area square footages of 10,000 square feet or less. The ban applies only to chain stores. Restaurants are expressly omitted from the ordinance’s restrictions.

Evanston’s ban closely tracks an ordinance passed by Chicago earlier this year and follows a trend blossoming across the country. Evanston’s Environment Board attempted to first tax bags (at $0.05 per bag) then ban them in 2011, but those efforts could not gain traction in part because of a concern that if Chicago did not have a similar ban, the Evanston one might drive shoppers to Chicago.

Aldermen Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Mark Tendam, 6th Ward; Jane Grover, 7th Ward; Ann Rainey, 8th Ward; and Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward voted to approve the ordinance. The “no” votes from Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward; Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Don Wilson, 4th Ward; and Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, highlight the City-community split over how to approach what some view as a serious problem created by the proliferation of plastic bags.

The reasons given for the no votes ranged from a belief that the restrictions were largely cosmetic and “feel-good” to a concern about the law’s impact on constituent businesses.

Ald. Burrus who championed the bag ban from its 2011 beginnings, hailed the ban’s passage as a “sea change moment” for Evanston. She likened the ban to efforts to ban smoking in restaurants, saying the fear that such a ban would harm Evanston businesses has proved to be misplaced. A smoking ban actually drew customers to Evanston, she said.

Not all agreed. “I am extraordinarily disappointed with how this is going,” said Ald. Wilson.

“To me it’s just a feel-good thing. We don’t like to see plastic bags in our backyard,” he added. Suggesting that the alternatives, such as paper bags and multi-use plastic bags are actually worse for the environment, Ald. Wilson continued, “If we truly cared about our environment as a whole we’d do something different.” The result of a ban is “pushing off the problem on someone else.”

A bag ban will actually increase the City’s carbon footprint, Ald. Wilson argued, and increase wastewater impact.

Ald. Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, who owns a small pet supply store on Noyes Street, said her primary concern was that businesses did not know the ban was coming. She called the ban “heavy-handed.” Agreeing with Ald. Wilson, she added, “This is just a feel-good ordinance with absolutely no impact whatsoever.”

The City has been working hard to secure a new grocery store to take over the former Dominick’s in the Dempster-Dodge shopping center, and the bag ban might adversely impact those efforts, said Ald. Peter Braithwaite, 2nd ward. “I’m definitely supportive of efforts to educate.”

Alds. Wynne and Tendam, 3rd and 7th wards, both said they struggled with how to vote, but ultimately determined the time had come for a ban.

Businesses will be fined $150 per offense, and the ordinance will be enforced by the City’s Health Department. “But we really want compliance. We don’t want to fine people or jail them,” said Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.

As the debate wound down, Ald. Rainey first proposed a delay in implementation, then proposed the elimination of smaller stores entirely with an express direction to “revisit it in a year.” The amendment passed 9-0. The vote on the larger ordinance followed shortly thereafter.