Plastic Bag Recycling Update
"What's going on with plastic bags in Chicago" is a question we're often asked. Unfortunately, the answer is that we probably won't know for another year, even though the plastic bag law was passed eighteen months ago. On February 28, 2010, the first reports from businesses in Chicago about plastic bag recycling during the 2009 year are due to the Chicago Department of the Environment. The DOE will then tally the results and issue a report at the end of 2010 to tell us just how successful the plastic bag recycling ordinance was in its first year.
City Council passed an ordinance in May of 2008 that would require all stores that receive 25% of their gross sales from food or pharmaceuticals to set up bins where customers could recycle plastic bags. Those bags are to be labeled with the words “PLEASE REUSE OR RECYCLE AT PARTICIPATING STORE.” The stores are responsible for negotiating with their waste haulers just how those bags are to be recycled and how much it will cost. The full ordinance can be read here.
At the time, the Chicago Recycling Coalition lauded the City Council's attempt to deal with the ongoing problem of plastic bag litter but criticized their focus on small to medium businesses, while letting large stores like Best Buy and Home Depot off the hook. Here is a part of the CRC's response to Alderman Virginia A. Rugai and the Committee on Energy, Environmental Protection & Public Utilities,
written by then CRC Vice-President and now President Mike Nowak:
As I stated when I first testified before this committee, this is a complex issue that is ill-served by quick and superficial debate. While we thank the committee for allowing us to provide limited input into the construction of this document, frankly we feel that we were not included in the discussion in a meaningful way. It was only after Aldermen Laurino and Burke had completely written their versions that we were aware that these drafts existed. Also, certain measures that we suggested, such as a fee on bags, were never seriously considered.
The initial Combined Ordinance was a fairly strong copy of the recently passed New York City ordinance. It called for plastic bag recycling to be available in all stores greater than 5000 square feet or in smaller stores if they are chains of five stores or more. Those stores are gone from the ordinance we're looking at now. The failure to include these stores is, to use a baseball metaphor, a swing and a miss. When the CRC asked why such businesses were not to be included in this ordinance, the response was that people are not in the habit of returning their plastic bags to hardware stores and electronic stores. But they're not in the habit of returning plastic bags to pharmacies and small corner grocers, either, and those businesses are included in the ordinance. This law is not just about getting bags into bins. It's about changing attitudes and patterns of behavior. With proper education and promotion, people can be taught to do remarkable things. Important things. Responsible things.
We won't know until the end of next year just how successful this ordinance has been. We're keeping our fingers crossed. But we welcome anecdotal evidence of the progress of this law in Chicago neighborhoods. If you have a story to tell us about plastic bag recycling in your neighborhood, the best place to post it right now is on our Facebook site. In the meantime, here are some reactions in the news.
Recycling advocates pan city's plastic bag law (Chi-Town Daily News, 5/7/2008)
No ban, no tax, no end in sight (Chicago Reader, 5/8/2008)
Small grocers say new plastic bag law could help Earth but hurt business (Medill Reports, 5/15/2008)
Recycling advocates pan city's plastic bag law (Chi-Town Daily News, 5/7/2008
In the interim both Target and CVS have stepped up with national programs to reward shoppers who either bring reusable bags or decline plastics
Target, CVS put plastic bags in the bull's-eye, pay for reusables (USAToday,
For more information on the seriousness of the plastic bag issue log onto this article from Earth911.