‘There’s just no agreement’: Single-use bag tax returns to the drawing board


Madison Bratley/Daily Senior Staffer

In 2020, the Evanston Environment Board began discussing how to change the existing ban on large businesses’ plastic bags because retailers were offering thicker plastic bags they deemed reusable to circumvent the ban.

Casey He, Assistant City Editor

One year after Evanston’s 2015 ban on all single-use plastic bags in large businesses went into effect, city officials reported no issues with compliance. Large chain stores like CVS and Jewel-Osco transitioned away from distributing single-use plastic bags, and some smaller businesses that weren’t legally obligated to give up plastic bags followed suit.

However, according to Evanston Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator Cara Pratt, the city noticed retailers offering thicker plastic bags they deemed reusable to circumvent the ban — though many customers treat those bags as single-use, she said.

Subsequently, the Evanston Environment Board began discussion in 2020 for ways to revise the existing ban and encourage Evanston residents to bring reusable bags when shopping.

“The origin of working on (the bag tax) is because it’s a directive of our Climate Action Resilience Plan and of high interest in the environmental community,” Pratt said. “(Members have) overwhelmingly communicated with us that they want to see this ordinance changed.”

On Jan. 9, City Council discussed a proposed ordinance to impose a 15-cent tax on all carryout single-use bags, regardless of material or business size. ​​Seven cents of the tax would go to the Solid Waste Fund for sustainability and waste-related programming, three cents to the Health and Human Services Department to enforce the tax and five cents to the retailer.

But after disagreement among councilmembers, Council voted 8-1 to refer the ordinance back to the Human Services Committee. 

Members of the Evanston business community had voiced passionate opposition to the new tax. 

Maggie Peng, owner of Pink & Tan in downtown Evanston, said she opposes the ordinance because — unlike the current ban — the proposed tax does not exempt small businesses. 

“When I read (the ordinance), the thing that really stood out to me was, how can you tax big box stores and small businesses the same way?” Peng said. “We have very different scales and very different operational models.”

Peng said she fully supports the goal of reducing businesses’ environmental footprint. Her store only uses recyclable, biodegradable paper bags — which would be taxed under the proposed new ordinance. But Peng said having to enforce the tax and additional bookkeeping would have a negative impact on her business. 

She said all these aspects of the ordinance make her think small businesses like hers are “being penalized for being small.”

During the Jan. 9 council meeting, Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) proposed several amendments to the bag tax — including one that would exempt businesses with premises smaller than 10,000 square feet. 

“On the one hand, we have really strong environmental priorities,” Nieuwsma told The Daily. “But on the other hand, we also have a priority … to foster economic development in our town, especially in light of the last two and a half years of the COVID era.”

Nieuwsma said a bag tax only targeting large stores would be sufficient to incentivize Evanston residents to use reusable bags. He said he will vote for the ordinance once it incorporates the amendments he introduced.

Council returned the ordinance to the Human Services Committee. It will also be discussed at the next Environment Board meeting.

Pratt said she will work with Nieuwsma, Ald. Eleanor Revelle (7th) and the corporation counsel to make revisions based on the feedback from City Council. She said she expects the ordinance to return to City Council in late February or March. 

“This has been a year-long process, and we’ve gone back and forth about probably every single detail of the ordinance,” Pratt said. “There’s just no agreement among (councilmembers). There’s also clearly no agreement in our community.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @caseeey_he

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