Chicago's tax on plastic bags seen as bust
Chicago retailers are getting an extra month to comply with the city’s new checkout bag tax, but critics of the plan say it won’t produce its promised environmental benefits.
The tax, which city officials approved last year, will levy a seven-cent fee on disposable plastic and paper bags commonly used at grocery stores. Five cents per bag will flow into city coffers, while merchants will be allowed to keep the remaining two cents.
The idea behind the tax, which will take effect Feb. 1, is to reduce the amount of plastic waste going to landfills by steering consumers toward reusable bags, which are often made of cotton or thicker plastic.
The bag tax is taking effect as the city repeals a previous partial ban on plastic bags, which was passed in 2014. Retailers easily circumvented that ordinance by offering thicker plastic bags for free to customers, according to the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan policy research group in Chicago.
Plastic bag bans and taxes that encourage the use of more durable reusable bags have unintended negative effects, according to Todd Myers, director at the Center for the Environment, in Seattle.
“Cotton bags use far more energy than plastic bags,” Myers told Chicago City Wire. “And reusable cotton bags and paper bags cause far more water pollution than plastic bags.”
Fertilizer aggregate found in cotton and paper bags can cause harm to marine life when the bags are eventually disposed of, he said. This occurs because the aggregate takes oxygen out of marine environments, leading to “dead zones” in some rivers, according to Myers.
“Alternatives to plastic are far more environmentally damaging than the plastic bags,” he said.
Such reusable bags require far more energy to make than plastic bags. Someone would have to reuse a cotton bag every week for three years in order to equal the energy efficiency of typical plastic grocery bags, Myers stated.
About 200 municipalities in the U.S. have imposed some kind of plastic bag tax or ban over the past decade, the Civic Federation reported. Chicago’s plan is expected to generate $9.2 million annually for city services.
Though bag bans and taxes have become more common, some cities -- including Dallas -- have repealed their tax plans due in part to legal challenges.
“I hope that’s a trend and that it’s due to people looking into scientific data in terms of what such laws are doing to the planet,” Myers said.
Bag laws have also faced some citizen backlash, as well, because consumers find the typical plastic grocery bags convenient and easy to reuse as trash bags, while reusable bags require care and regular cleaning, he said.
Such taxes also tend to hurt the poor more than the wealthy because the switch to reusable bags is more of a financial burden on them, Myers said.
He added that common exemptions written into bag laws give them a much more limited impact. Chicago’s law exempts bags used to carry pharmaceuticals and bags for restaurant take-out food.
“The policies we adopt make us feel good but don’t help the environment,” Myers said. “It’s all about feeling good even if it doesn’t help the planet.”