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.

Behavior change

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.

A shopper leaves the Howard Street Jewel on June 1 with one of the thicker plastic bags allowed under the city’s current ordinance. Officials say those bags aren’t being reused as hoped. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

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.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. I was actually surprised to read that the ban was enacted in 2014 and even more surprised to read the retrograde thinking of going back to tax…If people are going out of their way to buy plastic bags for whatever use (outside the context of a grocery store, for example) tax them ON TOP of the ban!
    Ireland banned plastic bags in 2003! It is simply a crime that 20 years later, the US is debating about this…

  2. This is absurd. There are plastics everywhere- in our food, in fish, in the water, in our bodies. If you really want to make a REAL difference- ban all plastic bags- period. As a business owner, why should my customers be taxed for using a paper bag? Why should I be subsidizing other businesses’ use of plastics? Frankly, this is a waste of time, money, and energy. Evanston needs to ban plastic bags all together. Also, some good the 2014 ban did- just about every chain store over 10,000 and restaurant uses plastic bags. You don’t want to see plastic bags in trees? Ban them!

  3. Anyone supporting this idea should be ashamed of themselves. Why should responsible shoppers be taxed for those who just let their bag’s fly in the streets and trees!!!!!!!!

  4. Read “Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans” by Charles Moore and Cassandra Phillips, and you will NEVER vote for plastic of any kind ever again! This book tells us about how plastic leaches into our own physical systems as well as the oceans’ creatures. What have we DONE?

  5. In general, all plastic is problematic. What should be done is definitely a surcharge for any plastic bags along with some kind of incentive for citizens to bring their own reusable bags. A contest or promotion of some kind would be good. Here is a link to a video on plastics which is less than 5 minutes long that everyone should see. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iO3SA4YyEYU

  6. I was in favor of the bag ban in 2014, but was dismayed when stores (and customers) got around it by providing (for free) thicker plastic bags. Some of these bags say something like “99 uses, but your garbage isn’t one of them.” This is because this thicker plastic is even less biodegradable than the thin bags. When I am at stores now I observe most people using these thicker plastic bags and very few people using reusable bags. This is at a time when there is no market for recycling plastic. It feels to me that we are searching for a policy that will encourage a habit change to decrease the amount of plastic we are putting into the environment. Either a bag tax or a bag incentive are more likely to work than the bag ban has. I appreciate that this tax would not be charged to people who qualify for food assistance. I hope that the Council will consider research on how effective or ineffective these policies have been in other cities, as many have instituted a bag tax. Here is some info about the effectiveness of the Chicago bag tax.

  7. I have been complaining about bags for more then 30 years.also plastic products. A lot of good it has done? Now we have to contend with paper boxes from Amazon . Carry out food containers.. how about charging for bags ? 50 cents each . 10 cent refunds at Whole Foods ? Is not much of an incentive. Food prices go up . So should the use of bags..

  8. Evanston City Council members won’t be happy until they can literally tax the air we breathe. Talk about equity? How will that bag tax affect the poor? And why tax paper bags? I use them to carry my groceries and then collect recyclabes because they don’t want plastic in the bin. That’s a two way benefit that would be taxed out of existence. Not smart at all.

  9. I recycle/renew plastic bags. For the heavier type, the cost of same is reflected in everything you buy. So now you want to add a dime tax when we’re all experiencing a runaway inflation with $5.00 per gallon gas? Speaking of long term change, I don’t appreciate 3rd Ward Ald. Wynne’s input. She pushed through a TIF District for Chicago Av. & Main St., which didn’t rank as a blighted area under that rule. I think that the bag issue needs further examination.

  10. This is a terrible, no good, very bad idea. I worked hard on trying to get the City Council to adopt a plastic bag ban before the 2014 ban finally passed. I remember the representatives from the plastics industry talking about how terrible paper bags are for the environment, and I remember that my alderman, Peter Brathwaite, voted against the ban at the time. It took a long time for Evanston to catch up with other cities around the country that had already taken this step.
    The fact that some folks choose to buy plastic bags for garbage, etc should not lead our city to eliminate the ban. As it is, it’s only in force at large stores, so single use plastic bags are still around in our community, there’s just fewer of them.
    The ones sold for dog poop, etc, are more environmentally friendly, and many grocery stores use recycled materials in their paper bags, which DO break down in landfills, unlike plastic, which lasts forever.
    If the city is looking for more $$, any kind of store provided bag could be offered with a price tag, but plastic should always come at a higher cost, period. And single use plastic bags should remain banned.
    It’s sad enough that our country as a whole seems determined to either stay stuck (re gun safety, for example) or go backwards (re abortion rights). Let’s not have Evanston join in this effort.

  11. During the height of the pandemic, Jewel supermarket staff at the Chicago Ave. and Howard St. stores banned the reuse of plastic and paper grocery bags. To my knowledge this ban has never been rescinded due to the pandemic’s seasonal resurgence and current changes in daily risk levels.

  12. What a spectacularly bad idea. Now is NOT the time to increase waste plastic. People were using reusable bags before the pandemic. We stopped because it was thought the virus spread on surfaces. Now we know that is not true. We did before. We can do it again. I returned to using my reusable bags quite a while ago.