Evanston grocery stores may be allowed to hand out single-use plastic bags again – but a 10-cent tax might be charged for their use under a proposal that received the backing of the city’s Economic Development Committee (EDC) on Tuesday, May 31.
EDC members spoke in support of staff’s recommendation to drop the ban on single-use plastic bags enacted by the City Council in 2014. The proposal, which would include the charge, or tax, for single-use bags, will ultimately go to the full City Council, which has final authority on the change.
Program’s key components
Under the proposal:
- A 10-cent tax on all point-of-sale bags would be imposed – including plastic bags of any thickness as well as paper and compostable bags.
- Revenue from the tax would be distributed among the city’s Solid Waste Fund, enforcement efforts and retailers.
- All retailers, regardless of the square footage of their business, would be required to charge the tax.
- Those exempt from the change would be customers using SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, restaurants and pharmacies. Thin plastic bags used for produce and dry cleaning, and newspaper bags would also be exempt from the tax.
After a long runup, Evanston City Council members in July 2014 approved a shopping-bag ordinance that prohibited Evanston stores larger than 10,000 square feet from distributing point-of-sale disposable plastic shopping bags.
In taking that action, officials back then had hoped the ban would discourage use of the bags, which contribute to the waste flow, and lead people to use other kinds of bags, such as thicker plastic bags, paper bags or compostable bags.
Those bags, however, “are often an unnecessary single-use waste item, too, and not disposed of correctly,” Alison Leipsiger, Evanston’s Policy Coordinator, and Brian Zimmerman, the city’s Solid Waste Coordinator, said in a May 25 memo to the EDC.
“Bag bans,” they observed, “also sometimes create a need to proactively purchase small bags for other purposes like picking up animal waste or lining small garbage bins at home. Bag taxes have been shown to curb behavior while allowing enough flexibility for individuals who do, at the moment, need a plastic bag.
“Currently, Evanston’s plastic bag ban allows for the free distribution of too many disposable bags, both typical plastic bags and those considered reusable (plastic bags over 2.25 ml thick),” the officials said. “This proposed bag tax will help generate a greater behavior change, as was seen in Chicago after implementing a bag tax, will address more point-of-sale types of bags, and expand the number of participating retailers.”
Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, made the referral to the EDC, requesting to repeal portions of city code that ban thinner plastic bags, and create a plastic-bag tax for consumers who buy them.
At the meeting, Reid said he would have been “right there, supporting council members in their ban on plastic bags enacted in 2014.” But he referred to research on the issue that he said showed people are continuing to use the bags even if not provided by the grocery stores “to line their trash bins, pick up dog waste, do whatever people do with those plastic bags that end up in a drawer or cabinet in your house.”
“If folks are going to buy the bags anyhow,” he said, “it is good to tax them on this. You try to make them as reusable as possible.”
Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, who was serving on the council in 2014, said she thought the ban had a positive effect, resulting in “less bags stuck to trees and stuff like that, which was driving everyone crazy. We have trees covered with bags and they stay there forever,” she said.
But Council member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, said the environmental impact is similar for the other bags, including the bigger paper bags allowed for use.
“My issue is [that] it’s likely the bigger bags still end up in the landfill,” he said.
Also, he argued, people who now are going out and buying plastic bags because of the ban should not be viewed negatively.
“We want them paying extra to buy a bag that’s intentionally used for picking up refuse and picking up these other things, and then we can require that the material used is compostable,” Burns said. “That makes more sense to me than the ask of this tax.”
At the close of conversation, Reid said he would confer with Leipsiger and Zimmerman and check in with the city’s Environment Board before bringing the bag tax plan to the full council.