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Chicago's plastic bag "ban" is so far a bust

Written by
Kris Vire

Picking up my lunch today from the Thai place down the block, which wrapped my already paper-bagged pad Thai in an unnecessary but smiley-faced thin plastic bag, I was reminded yet again how toothless Chicago's month-old plastic bag ban seems to be.

Passed by a 36-10 vote in the city council in April 2014, the new law went into effect August 1, forbidding chain stores of 10,000 square feet or more—your Jewels, Walgreens and Walmarts, for the most part—from doling out the wispy single-use "t-shirt" bags best known for their appearances in American Beauty and the branches of local trees. Smaller chain stores (think 7-Elevens and gas stations) will have to phase them out by August 2016; small businesses and restaurants are exempt.

The bill put forth by Ald. Joe Moreno was well-meaning. The single-use bags are so flimsy that baggers and checkout clerks routinely double them up; you might get a second use picking up your dog's poop or lining your bathroom trash can, but the profligate use of these bags meant most ended up as landfill or litter. Chicago is one of more than 100 U.S. cities to have banned them in recent years, in hopes of encouraging consumers to adopt reusable bags.

But many of the chains are complying with the letter of the law if not its spirit by switching to…thicker plastic bags. These heavier plastic bags are said to be graded to hold up to 22 pounds and good for up to 125 uses. But anecdotally, at least, I've noticed many store employees and customers treating the new plastic just like the old.

The Jewel near my apartment in Lakeview seems to be making a good-faith effort, stocking paper bags at the self-checkout and only offering plastic to those who request it; the store is plastered with exhortations to get in the habit of keeping reusable bags in your car, purse or briefcase. But at other chains nearby, cashiers automatically stuff my groceries into the new plastic bags without asking, even when I've brought my own canvas sack. Other chain stores, like the CVS around the corner from Time Out's office in the Loop, are still serving up single-use bags a month after the ban took effect.

And there's evidence to suggest consumers aren't reusing the heavy plastic bags. A case study of a similar two-year-old law in Austin, Texas, suggests that "people are now throwing away heavy-duty reusable plastic bags at an unprecedented rate," as a Bloomberg columnist put it last month. "What the city didn't foresee is that residents would start treating reusable bags like single-use bags."

Moreno is aware of the problem. "Look, the idea here is not to simply replace the old plastic bag garbage with this new plastic bag garbage," he told the Tribune on July 31, adding that he may introduce an amendment this fall to close the plastic loophole. Changing the consumer expectation of receiving disposable shopping bags on every trip to the store is a noble goal, but the "ban" as it currently stands won't do it.

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