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Chicago bans plastic bags: Chicago approves plastic bag ban in environmental win

Chicago has banned plastic bags, so if you are one of the nearly three million residents living in the “Windy City,” you’ll have to either opt for paper or bring your own bag to your favorite grocer. In a victory for the environment, plastic bags will be banned in almost all retail stores come next year, shares the Chicago Tribune. The Chicago City Council approved the ban this week by a 36-10 vote.

Plastic bags - the bane of the environment?
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

While doing away with plastic bags makes sense from an ecological point of view, opponents say that the ban may cause irreparable harm to local shop owners. Despite the clear argument from environmental advocates – who point out that plastic bags are used generally once and thrown away – critics say store owners may end up increasing their prices on goods because the paper bags cost more.

The plastic bag ban was introduced by city Alderman by Proco “Joe” Moreno, who has been arguing for months to get the ban in place. Moreno said the ban will reduce what he termed the use of “relics of the past,” and move the city toward greener measures. “It’s for a new Chicago, a better Chicago,” Moreno said.

Acting as windsocks, plastic bags litter parkways, flutter and get caught in trees, bloat our landfills and clog up drains. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, less than five percent of individuals living in Calif. who use plastic bags bother to return them for recycling. Californians alone “use 19 million single-use plastic bags a year, amounting to 147,000 tons of unnecessary waste that doesn’t biodegrade,” the site says.

According to LoveYourEarth.org, the overall recycling percentages of plastic bag users is even less – only one to three percent of people returning home with plastic bags recycle them. The site said that in the U.S., Americans go through an incredible 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. Plastic bags are made of a petroleum product called polyethylene, which contributes to air pollution. States Love Your Earth: “Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade – breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits contaminating soil and waterways.” A single plastic bag may take upwards of 1,000 years to break down.

“It's a big first step in taking these out of our sewers, lakes, trees and neighborhoods,” Moreno said. According to ABC News, Moreno said the city of Chicago uses approximately 75,000 plastic bags every day. Many of these wind up as litter, which Moreno says costs the city millions in clean up costs.

The ban will be phased in over time. Larger stores will see the ban go into effect in August of 2015, with smaller retail shops given additional time to comply. Restaurants and very small, independent retailers will be exempt, but are encouraged to get on board.

Some retailers dislike the ban, and fought hard to keep the city from enacting it. The focus of critics is on the cost, which they say will prove to be too much of a burden to certain stores, who will pass the expense on to consumers. Tanya Triche, vice president of the Illinois Retailers Merchants Association, said paper bags cost triple that of a plastic.

“Plastic bags cost an average 3 cents to retailers, paper bags, which is the next least expensive option, cost 10 cents on average,” Triche said. “So it's a direct and immediate cost.” Alderman Leslie Hairston of the 5th Ward, who voted against the ban, agrees. “Grocers are already looking for reasons not to come to South and West Side communities, and we are giving them more reasons by forcing them to spend money on paper bags,” said Hairston.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who fully supports the ban, said the argument of increased costs is all on "paper", as it were, and thinks the actual effect will be negligible. “It's not like the cost for bags, as it relates to groceries, starts after this regulation,” Emanuel said. “You already incur a cost for the production and service free of plastic bags.”

Moreno pointed out several successful retailers who do not use plastic bags. “ALDI, Costco, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's do not use plastic bags, they are doing fine,” Moreno said. “We've got great businesses doing well without these.”