Evanston debates implementing bag tax, banning plastic bags

Karen Chen

Nearly 70 Evanston residents attended a meeting on Tuesday evening to further public input after the introduction of a city ordinance proposing a 5-cent tax on carry-out bags was delayed from late April to explore banning bags altogether.

During the meeting at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., residents, business owners and officials were presented with statistics on the environmental effects of bag bans and where the city stood before the forum was opened to attendees. Support for a greener Evanston was expressed by many, but opinions differed on how to meet a goal of less bag waste.

Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th), who presented the ordinance for debate last month, was in attendance, along with Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) and Ald. Ann Rainey (8th). The meeting opened with a presentation by Catherine Hurley, the city’s sustainable programs coordinator.

Hurley researched the effects, history and local use of plastic and paper bags. She then calculated, based on Evanston Census data, that the city uses around 25 million bags a year of the 100 billion plastic bags and 10 billion paper bags used in the United States as a whole. Her presentation explored Evanston’s different options in reducing the environmental footprint of both types of bags and touched on the ecological difference between paper and plastic bag use, bag recycling and bag composition.

Hurley added that movements toward greener living across the country have included bag taxes and bans implemented in places like San Francisco and Washington D.C., but each community had to find its own way to implement the change.

“It’s like a recipe, coming up with some combination that works for you,” Hurley said.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz moderated a question-and-answer session before instructing attendees to break into small discussion groups to discuss the pros and cons of a bag ban or a bag tax and weigh in on how the city could promote lower shopping bag waste.

While diverse opinions arguing both for and against bag reduction legislation were voiced, the majority expressed the need for education and outreach programs for a greener Evanston and the use of incentives for businesses and consumers instead of punitive measures.

Some positive effects of a shopping bag tax or ban mentioned during the discussion included lowering the city’s carbon footprint, setting Evanston up as a green city model for neighboring communities, beautification, attracting green shoppers and taking part in the ongoing shift towards more eco-friendly habits.

“In my neighborhood, there’s a plastic bag at the corner in a sugar maple tree, and it looks absolutely disgusting,” said Lawrence Pinto, a Northwestern professor and Evanston resident who said eliminating plastic bags would help the neighborhood better reflect its value and help increase the value of homes.

Elizabeth Miller, co-director of the Roosevelt Institute Center for Energy and the Environment’s NU chapter and one of the several Bagless NU members in attendance, said the meeting was a key opportunity to understand the public’s opinions, work with the city, find NU’s role in the implementation and stress the importance of educating the public.

“They think that bags are a God-given right, but they’re not,” Miller said. “Your rights aren’t being impeded on, and plastic bags and paper bags aren’t essential to live in our society.”

Concerns raised included fears that changing to reusable, alternative-use bags would not be environmentally viable enough to justify a change from the status quo, citing the amount of water needed to clean bags and the durability and sustainability of their fabrication. Some business owners mentioned a perceived fear that customers would be lost to neighboring towns where bag taxes or bans are not implemented or that customers would buy less to avoid the hassle of carrying multiple bags. A few attendees also discussed the inconvenience to consumers and consumer choice.

Dan Mennemeyer, president of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, said the organization has no official position on the matter yet but had distributed an early survey to its members and hopes to work closely with the city to help inform their decision. He said there is a preference for going green, but how the city implements it will be where the debate lies.

“Nobody disagrees about reducing trash,” Mennemeyer said. “Taxes tend to be punitive, whereas business owners and consumers tend to respond better to incentives to change behaviors.”

Mike Sullivan, director of sustainability and evironmental policy at Hilex Poly, the country’s largest bag manufacturer, said closed-loop bag creation, which means bags made exclusively from post-consumer material, is the most viable solution. He said a ban would threaten thousands of jobs, that a tax would be regressive, disproportionately affecting the poor and that his job was to ensure communities looking to reduce bag waste made informed decisions.

“We share the sentiment of Evanston – we have got to cut down on litter,” Sullivan said. “We know that we’re the target.”

John Cawley, owner of Harold’s True Value Hardware, 2912 Central St., said he has already seen more and more customers bringing their own reusable bags. He added he was interested in the meeting because he wanted to find out what was going on and how it would impact his business.

“I’m for cleaning things up, but I don’t want us to jump too quick,” Cawley said.

Bobkiewicz and Hurley said they will compile the concerns raised and formally present the issue to the Evanston City Council in June. Bobkiewicz said the meeting went well because a diverse amount of opinions was heard and that people were comfortable to add all different sides of the issue.

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