Evanston aldermen continue scrutinizing plastic bag tax proposal

Susan Du

Discussion of a potential five-cent tax on carry-out bags in Evanston stalled at Monday’s city council meeting after aldermen expressed concern with the lack of research done on the economic impact of the proposal.

Members of the Evanston Environment Board presented their rationale for introducing a bag fee to local shoppers at Monday’s meeting. Their presentation focused on the moral imperatives and implementation strategies for the proposed bag tax.

“We hope to make a difference, to take one small step in making a difference in how we live in our city, to (act on) increasing pressure to respond to the crisis of the environment,” EEB member Laurie Zoloth said.

However, several city council members were not convinced and harbored a range of concerns, from the negative connotations of “tax” to the effect it would have on local businesses. Business owners attending the meeting also expressed disapproval of the proposal because many felt they were not included in the process of drafting it and their views were not represented.

Todd Ruppenthal, president of the Central Street Business Association, expressed his disappointment with the lack of outreach to businesses during the citizen comment portion of the meeting. He said his emails asking to participate in the Office of Sustainability’s drafting of the bag tax proposal have been repeatedly ignored.

“At this point, the Central Street Business Association feels that this interested business community has not been allowed an equal voice in this issue,” Ruppenthal said. “(We) request any proposal made by the Office of Sustainability should not be considered valid at this point.”

Council members concerned with how implementation of the bag tax might drive shoppers away from Evanston criticized the EEB’s presentation for being “happy-go-lucky.” Members requested the Office of Sustainability work with business owners to estimate the potential economic detriment the bag tax would impress upon them.

Ald. Judy Fiske (1st) said she was disappointed because the EEB failed to consider local businesses and the costs of implementing the tax in their presentation. She also criticized the bag tax proposal for failing to take into account bags used in restaurants, hotels, dry cleaners and other businesses that are not general retailers.

“The council gave (the EEB) directives that they should speak with large and small businesses,” Fiske said. “The disconnect between the environment board and small businesses is huge. (The bag tax) to them will make the difference between staying open or not staying open.”

Other council members proposed setting up a system of incentives for reducing plastic bag use instead of imposing bag bans or taxes, which hold a negative connotation.

Ald. Donald Wilson (4th) said Evanston shoppers should be rewarded for being as environmentally conscious as they already are, and a bag tax would be an unnecessary punishment.

“A five-cent bag won’t accomplish the goal,” he said. “This fee is going to alienate people.”

Council members in favor of the bag tax said others were “fear-mongering” by suggesting shoppers might avoid local stores as a result of the bag tax.

Ald. Coleen Burrus (9th) recalled that earlier proposals of banning smoking in restaurants and imposing a sin tax on alcohol and cigarettes were also opposed by those fearing of loss of business. She said local shoppers would become more attracted to green businesses in the same way that residents increased patronage of local bars and restaurants after the smoking ban was passed. A certain degree of consequence must be implemented in order to deter people from wasteful behavior, she said.

The council asked the EEB to conduct more research on the economic and environmental impacts of the proposed bag tax.

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