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Here's how Evanston's new plastic bag ban affects stores

Aug 04, 2023

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The Evanston City Council voted in May to ban single-use plastic bags at all businesses and charge a 10-cent tax on any non-plastic bags provided to customers at larger stores. The new bag law, Ordinance 1-O-23, takes effect Tuesday, Aug. 1.

Todd Nichols, who sells produce at the Downtown Evanston Farmers’ Market, is one of many who are making changes under the new law, which he calls a “great inconvenience” for his business, Nichols Farm & Orchard in downstate Marengo.

On a typical Saturday, he goes through around 1,000 plastic bags, he said.

Evanston’s plastic bag ban was done in correlation with the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan (CARP), which seeks to eliminate petroleum-based, single-use products and phase out the use of single-use plastics by 2025.

Evanston Sustainability and Resilience Manager Cara Pratt said the bag tax portion of the ordinance will only affect about 30 nonrestaurant businesses, those larger than 10,000 square feet. Customers who are SNAP recipients are exempted from paying the tax.

Half of the tax (5 cents per bag) will go back to the business, 3 cents will go to the city’s Solid Waste Fund for education and 2 cents will go to the Health Department to fund enforcement.

“We estimate the tax will generate around $100,000 annually in tax revenue to the city,” Pratt said.

Pratt said the Health Department will not take a “proactive” enforcement role in ensuring businesses comply with the ban. She said the city will operate on a complaint-based system, relying on comments received through the 311 phone system.

Pratt said fears about the plastic bag ban come down to “fear of change.”

“I think that this will be painful and potentially frustrating for a few weeks for our residents and visitors and then I think it will become the norm,” Pratt said. “I mean, our neighbors in Chicago have a bag tax that’s very similar to this bag tax. I haven’t heard anyone even mention frustration about Chicago’s bag tax in our research of this. I think it’s just kind of a temporary reaction and adjustment to a change.”

Chicago charges 7 cents a bag on the retail use of plastic or paper checkout bags. Chicago’s ordinance does not ban plastic bags and specifically exempts bags for bulk goods “such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, candy, cookies or small hardware items” from the tax.

Nichols Farm & Orchard will be offering compostable bags and charging the cost of the bags to customers. Nichols said he thinks some people won’t take well to having to pay for a bag from a farmers’ market vendor.

“Personally, I think it’s [the bag law] well-intentioned,” Nichols said. “There’s a town near us [in Marengo] that they tax bags, and I feel that’s a way better approach to go about it, personally. [A] ban is kind of taking the rights of using a bag away, but a tax seems more fair to me.”

Nichols said the city didn’t work with his business in understanding what bags would be acceptable under the new ordinance or “help in any way.”

Nichols won’t be using paper bags because he said they wouldn’t work well for bagging produce, as the fruits and vegetables are already wet and there’s a “million factors” like rain that could affect them.

Nichols said he bought the “compostable, plastic-like” bags for 25 cents on Amazon while “traditional” bags were around 3 cents.

Some business owners back Evanston’s new bag law.

At the Great Harvest Bread Co. on Central Street, owner Dave Schaps said he thinks the plastic bag ban is “great” and will hopefully get people “in the habit of carrying their own bags.”

Schaps is going to start charging customers if they need a paper bag. He hasn’t set the rate yet, but said he had to do this because the paper bags were expensive.

“If people want paper bags with handles, I’m gonna charge them,” he said, “and I think every business should do that.”

Schaps said that even though some people may be upset, “they’ll get over it” because the plastic ban “makes sense.”

“The biggest issue is customers, it’s not the businesses,” Schaps said. “Some customers are gonna be upset, but you know what? That’s just tough. It’s good for the environment and it should be that way everywhere, not just Evanston.”

Pratt said after the City Council passed its bag legislation in May, the city communicated first to 30 affected “bag tax” businesses through direct mailing.

“We primarily focused on communicating that because it involves a pretty substantial training change for employees of those businesses, as well as a point-of-sale change for the register, and also for the self checkout machines,” Pratt said.

Afterward, her team sent postcards to 1,000 Evanston-registered businesses explaining the ordinance and she said she went in person to the farmers’ market, talking to each vendor.

Northwestern University will comply with the plastic bag ban and after working with Pratt’s team, sustainNU, a university-wide sustainability program, has met with the food service and bookstores to be aware of the change.

Pratt said there was anecdotal evidence after Evanston’s initial ban on thinner plastic bags a few years ago that “urban tumbleweeds,” or floating plastic bags, were reduced in the community.

“There were fewer incidents of plastic bags being stuck in trees and that sort of waste and pollution around our community,” Pratt said. “And so we would anticipate with a wider ban on that type of plastic bag community wide, that type of pollution would continue to be reduced.”

Katherine Duncan, owner of Chicago-based Katherine Anne Confections, is another vendor at the Farmers’ Market. She has been using paper bags for a few years as part of a goal to eliminate plastic, but the paper bags are more expensive than plastic ones.

Duncan said she wishes that Evanston would support small businesses more.

“Obviously, creating plastic bag bans for Whole Foods and Jewel makes a ton of sense. But to put another burden on already burdened small businesses is really, really tough – especially farmers,” Duncan said. “We already know that most farmers are making minimum wage, if that. A lot of farmers have off-farm jobs to support their already challenging income and then add … the extreme weather and the climate change changes that we’ve been going through into that. It’s just a disaster.”

“So I would love to see folks saying, ‘Yeah, there’s a plastic bag ban and for any business under like a million in revenue or whatever litmus test they come up with, here’s how we are going to support you.’ That would be great.”

Pratt said Evanston businesses can apply to the Sustain Evanston Business program, a grant program that provides funding for businesses making changes to help the city reach its climate goals.

Pratt said a significant amount of work has been put into communicating the change to the community and businesses and it’s something the city’s Environment Board has been working on for several years.

“It’s exciting to see community-driven work that has culminated in a positive change for our community, but at the same time is difficult to implement and understandably frustrating to our business community,” Pratt said.

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Lia Reichmann is a summer college intern for the RoundTable and is also the social media manager. She is a rising senior at Drake University majoring in Multimedia Journalism and History. Lia is the Editor-in-Chief... More by Lia Reichmann

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