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Emanuel eyeing 7-cent bag tax to promote reusable bags

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is planning to slap a 7-cent tax on paper and plastic bags to give consumers an incentive to bring reusable bags and stop a ploy by major retailers to get around the city’s partial ban, advocates said Friday.

Tanya Triche, vice president and general counsel of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said the bag tax would raise roughly $10 million a year. A nickel of the revenue would go to the city. The other 2 cents would go to local merchants to help defray the cost of paper bags and thicker plastic bags.

“The tax gets people to think twice about whether or not they want to take a bag. You need an incentive. Without the added cost, people won’t do it,” Triche said Friday.

“The goal is to get people to start bringing their own bags to the store and reduce the number of bags people take” that ultimately end up clogging the city’s waste stream.

The mayor’s office had no immediate comment on the bag tax.

City Hall sources said the renewed push for a tax on disposable bags originated from an aldermanic working group about a month ago. The Emanuel administration has been “talking to industry and environmental groups about the idea and both are in favor” of the concept.

“We’re working with everyone on the details,” a source said.

Health and Environmental Protection Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) and Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st), chief sponsor of the partial ban on plastic bags, could not be reached.

A mayoral confidante, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that the bag tax would be part of the revenue package in the 2017 budget Emanuel will introduce to the City Council on Tuesday.

“The plastic bag ban isn’t working out like they thought,” the mayoral ally said.

“A tax would by a much greater deterrent and have a much greater impact in reducing usage than banning them and allowing stores to use thicker bags. It’s a way of ensuring our landfills get fewer bags. There’s also needed revenue attendant to it.”

Two years ago, Triche pushed hard for a 10-cent tax on paper bags that cost three times as much as plastic, to allow retailers to recoup their costs and give consumers an incentive to bring reusable bags on shopping trips.

But Emanuel, Cardenas and Moreno stood their ground against the tax idea.

They argued that there was nothing stopping retailers from imposing the tax, but the City Council was not about to do it for them and wear the jacket for nickel and diming Chicagoans.

But  that was before the partial ban turned into something of a farce — with giant retailers like Target and Jewel-Osco switching to thicker plastic bag capable of holding up to 22 pounds and being reused 125 times.

Jewel-Osco maintains that the “reusable” plastic bags are tailor-made to comply with a partial ban on plastic bags that exempts mom-and-pop retailers, restaurants and non-franchise independent stores with less than 10,000 square feet of space and mandates affected retailers to provide “reusable bags, recyclable paper bags or any combination thereof.”

Last year, Cardenas acknowledged that he had made a mistake. He argued that it was time to impose a bag tax to change consumer behavior and, perhaps, help defray recycling costs, he said.

“The range goes from a dime to a quarter. We may be looking at something a little more severe just because of what happened in this case so we don’t have to go back again and rewrite this thing,” Cardenas said then.

“A quarter sounds like a lot. It sounds like too much. But it can’t be so low that, year from now, we look at the results and find we didn’t change anything,” he said.

Moreno agreed with Cardenas, but only to a point.

“We’re trying to get rid of plastic. If they continue to go to the letter of the law, we’ll change the law by not allowing them to give away plastic bags,” Moreno said.

What about taxing paper bags?

“I’m not there yet, but I’m not opposed to it,” Moreno said.

“What we’ve seen from other cities that put fees in place is that, yes in the short term, it impacts behavior,” he said. “But long-term, consumers just swallow the costs” and continue to use paper bags.

Moreno acknowledged that the compromise ordinance approved by the City Council two years ago allowed retailers to bag store-bought items in thicker plastic bags. But those plastic bags must be strong enough to hold 22 pounds of merchandise and be reused 125 times.

At the time, Moreno said he planned to have independent testing done on the reusable plastic bags offered by Target and Jewel-Osco to make certain they met that standard.

On Friday, Triche noted that the thicker plastic bags cost retailer three times more than the old version or anywhere from 7-to-12-cents-per-bag. Paper bags cost retailers a dime, she said.

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