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Some aldermen slam Emanuel’s 7 cent tax on disposable bags

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to slap a 7-cents-a-bag tax on paper and plastic bags is drawing fire from some aldermen — and not because it’ll nickel and dime Chicago consumers who have had their fill of such taxes.

Aldermen Proco Joe Moreno (1st) and John Arena (45th) disagree with the environmental premise.

If the goal really is to stop a ploy by major retailers to get around the city’s partial ban on plastic bags, then the city should ban plastic bags altogether and impose a 10 cent tax on paper bags.

Instead, Emanuel’s plan would essentially lift the ban on plastic bags, which has turned into a farce with giant retailers like Target and Jewel-Osco switching to thicker plastic bags capable of holding up to 22 pounds and being re-used 125 times.

Under Emanuel’s plan, shoppers would be charged 7 cents a bag for paper or plastic every time they go to the grocery or any other Chicago store without reusable bags.

A nickel of the tax 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.

“We’re going backwards. On the West Coast, they’re banning all plastics and charging for paper. Cities like San Francisco are going further and getting rid of all bags,” Moreno said Tuesday.

“For us to say we’ll get rid of the [plastic bag] ban and you’ll pay 7 cents — stores won’t carry the paper because it’s too much. They’ll just carry the plastic. And consumers will swallow that 7 cents after a few months. It’s got to be larger than that. What I propose is no plastic at all,” he said. “Just gone unless you bring your own. And 10 cents on a paper bag.”

Arena said environmentalists “universally agree” that plastic bags, no matter how thick, “stays with us longer than any other material out there.”

“Part of this initiative is to repeal the ban on plastic, which I have some concerns about,” Arena said. “If we take that direction, then we are saying it’s OK [to use plastic] if those 100 bags that are going to end up in our trees or in our sewers are mushed into one bag that gets used 500 times and then ends up in a landfill for the next thousand years. We’re not really changing the quotient of how much of that material ends up in landfill.”

Arena acknowledged that an “economic motivator” in the form of a tax on disposable bags is “most effective in changing consumer behavior.”

But he argued that the city should be “using the ban to push people towards a better choice.”

“If it’s a plastic bag — whether it’s long-term usable or not — there should be a fee to discourage that as a choice,” he said.

On the hot seat this week at City Council budget hearings, Budget Director Alex Holt was asked how the mayor arrived at 7 cents a bag. Was the goal to arrive at the “most environmentally friendly outcome” or was it strictly to generate revenue?

Holt said the primary motivation was to “push people towards a reusable bag” and “address some of the environmental issues we’ve all been concerned about.”

“Our approach was not to go for the highest” tax in the country, Holt said.

“In Washington, D.C., they had 50 percent reduction in use of bags based on a 5 cent fee. We were looking to be aggressive in the level of reduction we would expect to see and, at the same time, not go to the max at this point in time,” she said. “There could be further discussion with the Council about increasing the fee over time if we think it would have additional impact.”

Holt cautioned aldermen not to “just assume” that plastic bags are more detrimental to the environment than cloth.

“Not all cloth bags are made in a way that’s environmentally friendly. If they’re cotton bleached to the point where it’s white, actually it often goes through a process that’s not environmentally friendly,” she said.

“The first step is to eliminate one-use plastic bags and try to move as many people as possible towards a reusable bag. The intent of this is to charge, regardless of the nature of the bag,” Holt said. “So, if you’re bringing your own bags, you don’t pay the 7 cents. If you are not and you take a plastic bag or a paper bag — whether it be one of the thin ones or one of the thick ones — you’re still being charged.”

Asked last week why he changed his mind about a bag tax he opposed two years ago, Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board that the tax was an environmental fix.

“I don’t particularly want to nickel-and-dime anybody. But we also don’t want to spend money . . . for bigger expenses for landfill. So we’re paying for this. The question is, how do we pay for it?” said Emanuel, who blocked a similar bag tax two years ago.

“It’s not about revenue. I adopted a policy on [banning] plastic bags with the City Council. It hasn’t worked,” he said. “[Taxing bags] actually has proven in other cities to alter peoples’ behavior.”

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